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BREACH (director/writer: Billy Ray; screenwriters: Adam Mazer/William Rotko/based on a story by Mr. Mazer and Mr. Rotko; cinematographer: Tak Fujimoto; editor: Jeffrey Ford; music: Mychael Danna; cast: Chris Cooper (Robert Hanssen), Ryan Phillippe (Eric O’Neill), Laura Linney (Kate Burroughs), Dennis Haysbert (Dean Plesac), Caroline Dhavernas (Juliana O’Neill), Gary Cole (Rich Garces), Bruce Davison (John O’Neill), Kathleen Quinlan (Bonnie Hanssen); Runtime: 110; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Bobby Newmyer/Scott Strauss/Scott Kroopf; Universal Pictures; 2007)
“Compulsory viewing.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Billy Ray (“Shattered Glass”) efficiently and in a low-key manner directs this true story, much like a police procedural docudrama. It tells of bringing America’s most treacherous spy ever, Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper), the FBI traitor who compromised security to the Russians and gave away the identity of numerous agents, costing the lives of at least three invaluable double-agents, down with the help of young FBI agent-in-training Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe). Though some 500 agents worked on this case, spearheaded by top man Louis Freeh, it was Eric who was able to get a hold of Hanssen’s Palm Pilot and download all the KGB contacts placed therein.

It’s a fascinating thriller that sucks us into its web of intrigue inside the FBI as it tells of the biggest security breach in American history and how the clever master spy was arrested on February 18, 2001, passing secrets in a garbage bag one last time at his drop-off spot at Foxstone Park near his home in Vienna, Virginia, and was charged with selling American secrets to Moscow for $1.4 million in cash and diamonds over a 23-year period. The capture in this two-month sting operation came just short of the time Hanssen was to retire after 25 years of service. He was subsequently sentenced to life in prison without parole, where he’s now serving in a federal prison.

It’s based on a story by Adam Mazer and William Rotko, who along with the director handed in the engaging script. Its realistic look might be attributed to the real Eric O’Neill, now a Washington-based lawyer, who acted as technical adviser.

The film tells how Hanssen despite his odd quirks, being a loner, his surly arrogant manner and creepiness thrived in the gun culture surroundings of the FBI as a good ole boy, an expert on computers, well-versed in Russian, and as someone thought of as very capable and someone that they could unquestionably rely on. He was born a Lutheran but converted to a Roman Catholic, belonging to Opus Dei–which still has their Mass in Latin–when he married his devout Catholic wife Bonnie (Kathleen Quinlan). He goes to Mass every day, doesn’t drink or swear, but is a sexual deviant, is hooked on strippers and logging into porn sites on the Internet and for some inexplicable reason makes videos of sex with his wife without her knowledge that he sends to his Internet contacts.

The story picks up when the FBI already learned of Hanssen’s espionage through Russian double-agents and thereby set a trap for him by promoting him to a top secret intelligence unit (one that was just set up as bait). He was assigned the 27-year-old Eric, a surveillance expert and a Catholic, as his clerk whose job was to report daily to senior agent Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney) about every movement his boss makes.

Hanssen is a bland character serving in a bland institution, and has functioned well in the FBI bureaucracy because he understands it so well. The banal man is malevolent, pathetically looking down his nose at the other agents and his superiors as he collects his bounty from the Soviets and then the Russians, and gloats in his superior intelligence. The possibly insane spy was a workaholic, who is not explained by Ray but instead he allows us to see how he thinks and operates. Even though we know the outcome, the screen is filled with tension thanks in no small part to Cooper’s bravura performance and the nervous innocent one by Phillippe–who everyone in the FBI talks down to and considers to be merely a lightweight. Cooper makes his character unsympathetic but someone who arouses our curiosity. Phillippe makes his character believable as someone who is lost in the FBI bureaucracy and though ambitious has a change of heart about the FBI as a career choice. We never learn why Hanssen became a spy or even why this uptight WASP, who rails against everything modern and is homophobic, would use the code name of Ramon Garcia when dealing with the Russians. What we do learn is how treacherous he is and that he has probably done more harm to this country than any other individual ever has, and that includes Osama bin Laden. That should be enough to make this compulsory viewing.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”