"Breach," directed and co-written by Billy Ray, dramatizes the final spy days of notorious FBI turncoat Robert Hanssen, who sold classified information to Moscow for 22 years before being nabbed. Piously Catholic and described as "diabolically brilliant," Hanssen has been an enigma in life, and intentionally perhaps, but also problematically, Ray makes him an enigma on screen as well. As a spy thriller, the movie’s entertaining, but as a character study — which is what this story demands to be — it’s hollow.
Ray, who also gave us a disgrace-to-his-profession protagonist in his journalism-themed "Shattered Glass," delivers both a good traitor and a bad one here. Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe), a surveillance man, is promoted to FBI headquarters to serve as an aide to the veteran agent Hanssen (Chris Cooper). Told that Hanssen is involved in online porn activity (which turns out to be true but low priority) before learning of his traitorhood, O’Neill is instructed to win Hanssen’s trust, spy on Hanssen, download incriminating evidence, and otherwise assist the bust.
The story follows the pair’s relationship from its tense beginnings, when Hanssen bullies O’Neill, through the bonding process, in which Catholicism plays a part, through — thanks largely to O’Neill — Hanssen’s 2001 arrest.
As a spy yarn, the movie’s decent. It’s friendlier than "The Good Shepherd," and Ray and his two co-writers reap humor from Hanssen’s religious and reactionary qualities. They also, O’Neill’s disapproving wife (Caroline Dhavernas) aside, avoid cliches.
And then there’s Cooper, the marvelous character actor, who commands the day as a lead. His Hanssen is a formidable complexity who exudes intelligence, pride and condescension. You sense the paranoia beneath his stoic demeanor, and his suspicions about O’Neill.
But beneath these surfaces, the filmmakers provide frustratingly little clue as to why. True, Hanssen feels unappreciated, but would that alone prompt an atheist-hating FBI veteran and family man to give the Soviets and Russians, among other things, the names of key undercover agents (some were consequently killed)? Hanssen may have been a mystery, but surely substantial hints existed. There’s a hole in this portrait where the essence should be.
As for Phillippe, he gives a generic performance and, when paired with the stronger, deeper Cooper, can’t convince us that O’Neill’s gaining ground on Hanssen. Laura Linney, meanwhile, brings dimension to the stock role of O’Neill’s supervising agent. Kathleen Quinlan, playing Hanssen’s unquestioning wife, is both sympathetic and slightly creepy.
Starring Chris Cooper, Ryan Phillippe, Laura Linney, Caroline Dhavernas
Written by Adam Mazer, William Rotko, Billy Ray
Directed by Billy Ray
Running time 1 hour, 50 minutes