Friday, March 16, 2007


dir. Billy Ray

Thick Brows.

Jeff Larson, NEW YORK CITY
February 23, 2007 - 35mm/42nd St. Loews

In February of 2001, John Ashcroft held what would be among the first of many carefully scripted press conferences to announce that the FBI had caught the worst spy in the history of the United States. Breach, directed by Billy Ray, opens with a serious, but nonetheless smug, Ashcroft intoning, as if in prayer, “Let me be clear - individuals who commit treasonous acts against the United States will be held fully accountable.” Ashcroft is passing judgment upon one Robert Hanssen, a devout catholic and unabashed capitalist who accepted $1.4 million dollars to spy for a country that had long ago folded its hand.

In Breach, Mr. Hanssen, played by Chris Cooper, is an FBI agent who has long ceased to matter, and Cooper is a perfect match for the role. In his twilight hours as an FBI agent, Hanssen is desperately trying to talk to anyone who listens about the pressing need for more security and better infrastructure throughout the bureau, but in his eyes we can see that he is preoccupied with other matters. Once he had been the FBI’s top Soviet analyst – apparently the best.

Eric O’Neill, played here by the thick-browed Ryan Phillippe, was the man who brought Hanssen down. An overachiever who spends his nights spying on Arab targets fighting with their wives and his days writing 50 page memos about data mining, he is playing the game and doing everything he can to become an agent. Kate Burroughs, his not-so-immediate superior, (Laura Linney-- doing her best Jodie Foster impression, without the terrifying stilettos) informs Eric that his efforts to fight the new hidden war are no longer needed and that he will now be shadowing Hanssen as his assistant. The reason given is purposely unclear; something about Hanssen being a “sexual deviant,” and Eric slowly begins to see through the ruse. But, in the merit-based hierarchy of the FBI, pride and status are paramount, and Eric, the klutzy underling, isn't appraised of the full extent of the investigation until much later.

Early on, two workers exchange a couple of hallway portraits from those of Bill Clinton and Janet Reno to George Bush and John Ashcroft, and it’s clear that Robert and Eric are playing out a similar changing of the guard. Hanssen takes O’Neill under his wing to teach him not only the inner-workings of the FBI – he sees every bureaucratic conflict as a game of politics – but also how to be a “Good Catholic,” and good husband -- that O’Neill’s fiance is a Protestant, let alone an ex-pat from a former soviet bloc country riles him to no end. But, more importantly, the guard is changing under the auspices of a pervasive sort of dumb pride. Hanssen brags about writing an unbreakable encryption program in binary code, ones and zeros, before lunch, and sends pornographic videotapes of himself to eastern European countries. Of course, then, it is obvious that the bumbling overachiever, O’Neill, is assigned to track his movements – the simplified psychology in the film casts his diligence as an immediate match for Hanssen’s self-love.

And, unfortunately, too many instances of this sort of filmic stenography occur in Breach. So much of the film is bogged down in the pervasive clich├ęs of the spy thriller -- one moment involves a security camera and a series of cut-aways to a slowly advancing download bar -- that the end product becomes exhaustingly familiar. Rather than creating characters who are believable, in Breach, the characters are built out of their vices. But, we’ve seen these vices before: Eric’s girlfriend can’t understand his obsession with the FBI and threatens to leave him (sound familiar?) while he hits the bottle, and Hanssen is portrayed as a caricature of a straight and cartoony ultra-conservative – his wife looks surprisingly like Barbara Bush, and he insists that the soviets lost the war because they were atheists. Now, usually I’m fine with a measured amount of shorthand – movies are too short to include everything – but masking shorthand as serious character building, in a movie that takes itself as seriously as Breach, just amounts to sloppy filmmaking. As the movie progresses, Both Hanssen’s and O’Neill’s pride emerges as the sum total of these vignettes, and ultimately this pride leads to Hanssen’s downfall – and, we are to assume for we have assumed before, the downfall of the FBI.

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