February 18, 2007

Movie Review: Breach

Ryan Phillipe and the real Eric O'Neill Breach is a tightly scripted, well acted espionage thriller. It is such a joy to sit in a theater and watch a film that gets right down to business. Breach doesn't get bogged down in side stories, on any superfluous subplots. It is a film that delivers plenty of details regarding the true life story, yet also folds in a layer of emotional depth to create a well rounded film that will slowly build the drama before reaching its inevitable conclusion.

Breach is another film based on real world events. Now, whenever you see that "fact" tacked onto a film, you must be sure to take it with a grain of salt. While many stories from the realm of the real make great fodder for the cinema, there are inevitably going to be changes, compromises, and fictions made to accomodate the medium. So, knowing that much, I cannot say how true this is to the real events, as I am completely unaware of the case. Still, Breach is completely engrossing and has a wonderful sense of realism that would have me believe that this is completely accurate. Again, that is a something I know intellectually to be false, yet easily set aside as the filmmaking craft here is so involving.

This is the story of Robert Hanssen, an FBI agent who was a traitor, selling intel to the Soviets over the span of 22 years, before finally being arrested in February of 2001. The film chronicles the final two months leading up to the arrest.

Everything hinges on young FBI upstart Eric O'Neill. He is taken off of his current intelligence gathering mission and assigned to a desk as Hanssen's clerk. Eric spends his time attempting to find information on his new boss, under the guise that he is uncovering the senior agents sexual perversions. When the further truth comes out, Eric begins to question his own ability to do the job, as well as having to deal with the increasing strain it has put on his marriage.

The film is not flashy, there are no big explosions, no big shootouts, no car chases, yet it is an still an exciting foray into the world of the FBI. It moves forward at a slow, methodical pace that feels genuine as it slowly draws you in. At first, the more you learn of Hanssen, the harder it is for Eric to believe him to be a bad guy. He comes across as a man who is a strong believer in faith and country, dutifully doing his work, and something of an inspiration to other agents. But, the deeper you go, and the more you listen, Hanssen reveals himself as the pervert and right wing nut that he is. It is an odd dichotomy, someone who is so creepy, yet seemingly so dedicated to his work.

Smartly written, it steps beyond the case it covers and may be a larger comment on the state of disarray in the country's intelligence community. It boggles the mind that someone could have committed such atrocities and taken so long to bring him to justice.

Chris Cooper is excellent in his portrayal of Hanssen. He is deliciously creepy, terribly charismatic, and just plain whacky. No reasoning is offered up for the actions, and they didn't need to, Cooper conveys so much in how he becomes Hanssen. Playing Eric O'Neill is Ryan Phillipe, an actor that I have never particularly cared for, yet his bland presence works perfectly well for the character. There is something about his unassuming and charisma killing blandness that works perfectly for the clerk that no one would suspect. Rounding out the cast are Laura Linney as O'Neill's handler, and Caroline Dhavernas as O'Neill's wife.

The film was directed by Billy Ray, who co-wrote the screenplay with Adam Mazer and William Rotko. They have crafted a film that is finely tuned, not a scene out of place, not a line wasted. A strong film that knows what it wants to do, and does it.

Bottomline. I was truly drawn into the film, into the reality it creates. Is it perfect? No. While it may not be, it is still a wound up thriller that is still involving, even with already knowing the outcome. Strong performances and a nice direction highlight a first rate thriller.



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