A film review by Craig J. Koban
Rank: # 14
2007, R, 110 mins.
Robert Hanssen: Chris Cooper / Eric O'Neill: Ryan Phillippe / Kate Burroughs: Laura Linney
/ Dean Plesac: Dennis Haysbert / John O'Neill: Bruce Davison
/ Rich Garces: Gary Cole Directed by Billy Ray / Written by Adam Mazer, William Rotko and Billy Ray
Robert Hanssen: Chris Cooper / Eric O'Neill: Ryan Phillippe / Kate Burroughs: Laura Linney / Dean Plesac: Dennis Haysbert / John O'Neill: Bruce Davison / Rich Garces: Gary Cole
Directed by Billy Ray / Written by Adam Mazer, William Rotko and Billy Ray
Can an actor that has already won an Academy Award still be considered underrated?
If you're Chris Cooper then I would answer a resounding yes.
His razor-sharp and meticulously tuned performance in Billy Ray’s Espionage thriller, BREACH, is the best of his career thus far and his finest hour since he snagged Oscar gold in 2002 for ADAPTATION. Perhaps Cooper is underrated in the manner that he flies in under the radar of expectations. He carries with him such a soft spoken and stern determination and focus with his eclectic roles that you very rarely ever see the actor underneath the parts. Instead, you see the actor inhabit them. Of all of the great contemporary actors, Cooper is one of the rare breed that is able to do this so effortlessly, which is why I think that he is sometimes forgotten when cinemaphiles compile lists for the best actors working today.
BREACH epitomizes how one single performance can completely dominate every frame of a film. This is not to say that the other actors do not give it their all in BREACH, but this is a pure one man show through and through. Perhaps the key to Cooper's remarkably layered and nuanced performance is that he plays such a man of paradox.
Billy Ray has approached such contradictory figures in his past films, like the criminally overlooked SHATTERED GLASS, which focused on another troubled and duplicitous character. In that film Stephen Glass was a journalist that was respected by his peers and seemed like a well-rounded writer. He was charismatic, likeable, and persuasive, but underneath him lurked a demented little worm that purposely engaged in deception. He won critically accolades for his stories, but what no one at the time realized was that he cooked them all up. He was an ultimate phony…a con man…and charlatan. What was so enthralling about SHATTERED GLASS was how enamored I became in the levels and severity of his deceit. I almost came out of that film with a sly level of respect for his charades, despite the fact that he was a sniveling little leach of a man.
BREACH works even better in much the same capacity. The film also takes its subject matter from the headlines and also deals with a real creep, but a ruthless, wickedly intelligent, and highly intuitive creep. In this case its Robert Hanssen, whose real life story was the basis for THE ELEVENTH HOUR by Adam Mazar and Bill Rotko. Hanssen spent 25-plus years working for the FBI. He was a very self-riotous man who was intensely spiritual and condemned “Godlessness”. He attended mass regularly every morning and spoke strongly about the necessity for men to be loyal to the Bible and its teachings. He was completely engulfed with three things in equal order: God, country, and family. In short, he seemed like a regular All-American that was being all that he could be.
That was all a lie.
In secret he was an FBI agent that became a spy. He would commit some of the worst treason in US history that many historians have commented on as being the most devastating intelligence disasters ever in the country. He also was big into Internet porn and had a penchant for taping sex with his wife and file sharing it with other people on line. Sure, being treasonous to your country is a sin; being a sex fiend only added tons of salt to his wounds.
Among the members of the FBI, Hanssen was considered a fairly mediocre agent, someone that was not worth worrying about. Yet, beyond his meek façade was a cold and manipulative beast. He sold his first bit of classified information to the Soviets in 1979 for $1.4 million in cash and diamonds. He also revealed the identities of KGB double agents and eventually compromised their lives. He was the ultimate granddaddy of snitches and the damage he did to the US government has been described as irreparable. He was captured in 2001 after decades of deceit. He received life in prison without the death penalty (he arranged a plea bargain to get out of it) and sits 23 hours a day in maximum-security solitary confinement. He has absolutely no chance of parole. He is a locked up man for life.
Okay, some could call BREACH rigidly anti-climatic, but those naysayers miss the point. The film is not so much about the who’s and the when’s of his capture, but more about the build up to it. Yes, we all know that he was caught, but the captivating and riveting aspect of the BREACH is in all of the details that led up to that point in 2001. It's one of those very rare espionage thrillers that is less concerned with explosions and bullets flying. This one works strongly because of well-defined characters, brilliant acting, and a well-oiled and expertly paced screenplay that effectively lures in the audience into its cat and mouse battle of wits. The tension built here is purely psychological and not really about mayhem.
The film opens with Eric O’Neil (Ryan Phillippe, getting more mature and broad with every new performance) who is training to be an FBI agent. One day he is pulled away from his assignment by Special Agent Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney). She gives Eric a new job that perhaps he has been waiting for as a meal ticket to FBI fame. He will become the desk clerk for Agent Hanssen (Cooper) and find out as much about him as possible. He is asked to write a journal and report daily about the most simple of activities. In short, he’s a mole. Why? Well, at first at least, Burroughs tells him that Hanssen is a pervert that is addicted to pornography and the last thing the FBI needs is another sensationalistic story with the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky story still being uttered in the press.
Eric agrees, albeit begrudgingly at first. He wisely asks his higher ups why they just don’t go in and arrest the man, but they respond that they need to catch him in the act. Fair enough. Their first few days with one another are stressful and tense. At first, Hanssen is a cold hearted and manipulative snake to Eric, which makes his spy work all the more difficult. Even worse is the fact that Hanssen is an exemplary judge of character. He can see through a lie better than anyone and can spot a tell from a million miles away. He also has a photographic memory for detail. At one point he leaves his office and Eric begins to snoop around. Eric barely touches anything. When Hanssen comes back he takes a few glances at his office, turns to Eric and warns him, “If you ever mess around in my office again you’ll be pissing purple for a week.”
Slowly, Eric begins to ease into his assignment and his initial displeasure with the man grows into father-like hero worship. The more he works closely alongside him the more he sees him as a morally head strong American that cares for his family and country. He views Hanssen as a real patriot and cannot understand how he could possibly have anything to do with porn. He never curses, goes to church everyday, and instills lessons of the Bible in Eric constantly. At one point when he reaches his breaking point he confronts Burroughs and wants out. It is here where he discovers the truth about Hanssen's double life as a Russian secret agent. Horrified and shocked, Eric must now muster up all of his faculties in an effort to out-manipulate the man he once admired before he can discover his own dual role.
BREACH is a film that builds suspense so terrifically in the most simple of ways. One moment would make Hitchcock proud where Eric secretly has taken Hanssen’s palm pilot and attempts to download files before he can return to the office. Just when he is home free he realizes – dammit – that he can't remember which pocket in the four-pocket briefcase Hanssen put the pocket PC in. The manner that Eric is able to deflect Hanssen’s suspicions about him being a mole is also kind of ingenious. At one point he is forced to stall getting him back to headquarters so that his superiors can strip Hanssen’s car for evidence and the put it back together without him knowing. Eric purposely takes a detour to extend the trip back, which upsets Hanssen so much that he decides to jump out of the car and walk back to work (in this instance – walking would be quicker). If Eric does not stall him here then his mission is sunk. Well, he does stall him further and the way that he does so by appealing to his religious predilections and passions reaches a level of crafty and spontaneous inventiveness. It’s the mental game of poker faces that the two characters play that always makes BREACH so enthralling.
Beyond its expert pacing and taut and tense narrative, BREACH is an actor’s film. The performance by Laura Linney is brief, but brimming with authority and strength. Ryan Phillippe is given the tricky role of the typical rookie character that respects his mentor figure and then must be able to out fox him to get him in the end. In a lesser screenplay or in the hands of an inferior actor, Eric could have been a perfunctory and routine role. Yet, Phillippe is able to craft his best performance to date as the wet-behind-the-ears FBI trainee. After making some great career choices as of late (like being in CRASH and FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS) he is steadily shedding his reputation for being in fluff.
However, BREACH is owned by Cooper with his brilliant turn as the creepy and icy demeanored Hanssen. He is able to command our buy in to the troubled character with such weight. Hanssen is a villain, but one that goes largely against the grain for political thrillers like this. He walks a fine line between being a figure that commands respect and one that deserves our chastising ridicule. He is often seen as a decent and headstrong man that stands for good, noble concepts, but he is unavoidably damaged goods by the fact of his lecherous stabbing in the back of the country he professes to love and adore. He is a charismatic presence and incredibly smart, so smart that his lack of mobility up the ladder at the FBI wounds his pride, and you can see his pain in his eyes. For this, Hanssen is somewhat sympathetic and we can relate to his frustration, even when he capitalizes in on it and channels it into treacherous actions. By the end of the film when he is captured I did not find myself hating him as much as feeling pity for him. He’s kind of a sad and pathetic figure more than he is an unfeeling monster.
BREACH is a thriller and real-life inspired espionage film that does not go for cheap thrills, nor does it try to confuse us with a labyrinthine plot and confusing character arcs and double crosses. It is a film about efficient and strong storytelling and acting done with consistent economy. It's unconventional in the sense that, within the first few minutes, we know whom the bad guy will be, the fact that he gets caught, and the despicable acts he perpetrated. The film then allows us to discover all of the other bits of the narrative puzzle and it does so by keeping us compelled and transfixed by the proceedings. BREACH is subtle, enveloping, and lean filmmaking at its best and emerges as the finest film of the young year thus far. And Chris Cooper is so quietly commanding and discretely strong in his role as one of the greatest turncoats in US history that – if you blink – you just may miss out in how great the performance is.