Review by Gordon Justesen
Stars: Chris Cooper, Ryan Phillippe, Laura Linney, Dennis
Haysbert, Caroline Dhavernas, Gary Cole, Kathleen Quinlan
Director: Billy Ray
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Features: See Review
Length: 111 Minutes
Release Date: June 12, 2007
“One might propose that I am either insanely brave or quite insane. I’d say insanely loyal. Take your pick. There’s insanity in all the answers.”
One of the amazing qualities of Breach is that it holds you in its grip throughout even as it reveals the outcome of the story in the opening scene. The opening features actual news footage of then-Attorney General John Aschroft announcing to the press that the FBI had succeeded in the arrest of a man who would become the most dangerous traitor in the history of the United States. The date was February 20, 2001 and the traitor’s name was Robert Hanssen.
The film depicts the events leading up to Hanssen’s arrest. And even though we are already informed of the outcome, especially if you already knew the story when it was reported, Breach remains an intense and consistently surprising nail-biter that keeps you glued to the seat. Though not as fantastic when compared to the likes of The Good Shepherd, it’s still one of the most intelligent spy thrillers you will ever come across.
We are then introduced to aspiring FBI operative Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe), who is given a very rare task. Assigned by Special Agent Burroughs (Laura Linney), O’Neill is placed with a desk job working alongside Hanssen in a newly formed department of the bureau. Hanssen is considered the FBI’s top ranking agent and is only two months away from retirement.
So why put a rookie to spy on Hanssen? O’Neill is told that Hanssen is an alleged sexual deviant, which would obviously be an embarrassment for the FBI. It may be a questionable task, but with a potential for promotion as a result, O’Neill accepts the assignment.
The gifted Chris Cooper delivers without question his most outstanding performance to date, which is indeed saying something, as Hanssen who has to be one of the most morally complex individuals to ever exist. As O’Neill begins working alongside Hanssen, he has no idea what to think. What O’Neill sees on the surface is that of a dedicated family man and devout Catholic (attending church daily), and doesn’t even drink. In other words, he has a difficult time believing the same man to be a sexual deviant as the FBI suggests and why conducting such a case when Hanssen is two months away from retirement has any purpose.
Once his superiors have complete confidence in O’Neill, they reveal the real reason for spying on Hanssen. It turns out, he has been selling secrets to the Russians dating all the way back to 1985. The damage he has done to the country is unquestionably massive. And in order to nail Hanssen successfully, the FBI director insists that he be caught in the act.
Just how damage was brought on by Hanssen’s actions? In a stunning sequence where O’Neill’s boss informs him of Hanssen’s doings, we learn that the trusted FBI vet in one case gave up the names of two Russian spies who were later shot in cold blood by the KGB. It was as if Hanssen had pulled the trigger himself. That alone helps illustrate why Hanssen must be, and had to be, punished.
A lot of credit must go to director and co-writer Billy Ray for constructing such a tightly wound and riveting true-life thriller. He has an uncanny gift for taking reality and dramatic license and mixing the two together seamlessly. He accomplished the same with his last film, the brilliant and criminally under-seen Shattered Glass, which told the story of another sort of fraud, journalist Stephen Glass. In short, Ray should be the go-to filmmaker for suspenseful films based on real life.
With outstanding acting from the terrific cast, a fantastic screenplay and a consistent feeling of intense paranoia, Breach deserves its place amongst the finest espionage thrillers ever made. It’s absolutely compelling from beginning to end and delivers surprises when you least expect them. And the story reminds us more than ever to NEVER judge a book by its cover.
Universal delivers a remarkable looking disc that soars in high image quality from beginning to end. The look is at times that of a steel cold palette, which particularly looks strong. Image quality is endlessly sharp and clear. The overall detail in the presentation is quite striking.
A strong 5.1 mix is provided. And since the film is mostly driven by dialogue, the quality of the sound is quite surprising. Dialogue delivery is terrifically clear, and music playback is most effective in its performance. Some grand use of set pieces mark for nice background noise as well.
Some truly nice features on this Universal release, including a commentary with writer/director Billy Ray and the actual Eric O’Neill, who was a creative consultant on the film. Also featured are two featurettes; “Breaching the Truth” and “Anatomy of a Character”. The standout feature, and one of the best ones I’ve seen featured on any disc, is a Dateline NBC news report titled “The Mole” which aired shortly after Hanssen was arrested. You learn some startling information here.
Breach is as gripping and taut as a thriller can get, especially when dealing with a true-life incident. Chris Cooper’s remarkably effective performance and director Billy Ray’s genius crafting of the material help make this a can’t miss affair for fans of solid espionage.