Inspired by the true story of the greatest security breach in U.S. history
Is a mystery really mysterious when the end isn't a secret? Is espionage still thrilling when you know beforehand that the cloak has been pulled back and the dagger revealed? If it's a film as good as Breach, the answer is a resounding yes. Here is a true story that's genuinely stranger than fiction: FBI agent Robert Hanssen spent over 20 years selling government secrets to the Russians, making him the most egregious traitor in U.S. history. He was an Opus Dei Catholic and a devout churchgoer who was also a sexual deviant, a straitlaced company man so trusted by his employers that they once appointed him to lead an investigation designed to reveal who the spy was--when in fact it was Hanssen himself. And in the end, he was brought down in part by 26-year-old Eric O'Neill, an agent-in-training who worked with him for just two months. Chris Cooper, a 2003 supporting actor Oscar winner for Adaptation, is brilliant in the lead role, playing Hanssen as a dour, cold, ultraconservative cipher (women in pantsuits are just one of his peeves) whose conversations more closely resemble interrogations. Ryan Phillippe is also excellent as O'Neill, who's initially kept in the dark by the superior (Laura Linney) who assigned him to help expose Hanssen's treachery; thinking he's been brought in only to gather evidence about his boss' sexual transgressions, O'Neill finds himself caught in a profound moral conundrum, grudgingly admiring Hanssen even as his own marriage is severely tested by the older man's creepy and hypocritical intrusion into their lives, not to mention the FBI's strict rules against discussing the case.
Director Billy Ray (whose previous feature was also a true story: Shattered Glass, about the young writer who fabricated stories for The New Republic) and co-screenwriters Adam Mazer and William Rotko do an extraordinary job of maintaining the tension as the story leads to the conclusion that's been revealed in the first few frames (i.e., Hanssen's arrest in February 2001); the exquisite torture of O'Neill's having to keep Hanssen distracted while Bureau technicians search the latter's car is but one example. Moreover, notwithstanding the plot developments, the filmmakers manage to keep their focus on the personal interactions that are the film's key element: the relationships that O'Neill maintains with Hanssen, his father (a cameo by Bruce Davison), his wife (Caroline Dhavernas), and others are entirely credible. At once fascinating and horrifying, Breach is inarguably one of the best films of 2007. --Sam Graham