FBI agent Robert Hanssen’s treason was described by the Department of Justice at the time as “possibly the worst intelligence disaster in U.S. history,” and that’s saying something. Hanssen was arrested in February, 2001 for selling secrets to the Soviets, and “Breach” picks up the story two months beforehand, largely ignoring Hanssen’s expansive criminal past in favor of focusing on the culmination of the investigation against him and the work done by agent-in-training Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe), who proved instrumental in finally nabbing him.
O’Neill is pulled from counterterrorism surveillance duty by Agent Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney), who informs him he’s been reassigned as a clerk under Hanssen (Chris Cooper), who has recently transferred from the State Department to the Bureau’s IT division to reconfigure how case data is stored. O’Neill is to keep tabs on Hanssen because, Burroughs informs him, the senior agent has been posting pornography on the internet.
Naturally, this less-than-glamorous posting irks the ambitious O’Neill, who is the kind of gung ho overachiever nobody likes to work with. Nevertheless (and after some initial unfriendliness), Hanssen starts to warm up to the young man. Discovering O’Neill is Catholic, he invites him and his wife Juliana (Caroline Dhavernas) to attend Mass with his family. The attention, while a bit unnerving (Hanssen drops by to discuss Opus Dei with Juliana, who’s a lapsed Protestant), and Hanssen’s apparent devotion to his job lead O’Neill to think his boss is being railroaded. On the surface, Hanssen is a devout family man who performs his job thoroughly and with no desire for accolades. It’s only after O’Neill demands to be brought up to speed that Burroughs outlines the case against Hanssen, the damage he’s caused, and the critical need to put a stop to his activities.
“Breach” is an anomaly in today’s Hollywood: a serious character piece that eschews explosions and car chases to tell a genuinely involving story. Cooper’s portrayal of Hanssen is, by turns, disturbing, sympathetic, and humorous. He’s a man with so many demons straining at the leash he can’t help but let a few out of the house once in a while, be they sex tapes of his wife or a drunken, late night pistol session, and Cooper handles it all admirably. Similarly, I can’t remember seeing Linney give a bad performance (hell, she was even good in “Congo”), and she doesn’t disappoint here as the embittered agent who’s devoted a good chunk of her career to investigating one of her own.
The weak link is Phillippe. Sandwiched between an Oscar winner (Cooper) and nominee (and likely eventual winner Linney), he doesn’t completely fall on his face, but his shortcomings as an actor are that much more evident as the movie wears on. Still, if writer/director Billy Ray was looking for someone to show how the in-over-his-head O’Neill contrasted the wily Hanssen, Phillippe ends up being a perfect choice.
It would’ve been very easy to construct a jingoistic action piece around Hanssen’s story, hire Tony Scott to direct, and further fictionalize things by throwing in some gunplay and krav maga to appeal to the “Bourne Identity” crowd, but Ray and company thankfully don’t go this route. “Breach” is a look at the insecurities and flaws we all carry, it just happens to be embedded in the story of the worst traitor in FBI history.