Spy games

Breach drains the color from its espionage tale

Mike D'Angelo

Opening with John Ashcroft's February 2001 press conference announcing Hanssen's capture, Breach flashes back only a few months, to the point at which the Feds lured Hanssen (Chris Cooper) to Washington to head an imaginary new department and installed untested surveillance operative Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe) as his make-believe assistant. Initially, O'Neill knows nothing of Hanssen's spy activity—his superior, Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney, wasted in a colorless role), tells Eric only that Hanssen is a sexual deviant whose predilection for hookers and Internet porn could embarrass the branch. Even when O'Neill learns the whole truth, however, he finds it nearly impossible to reconcile the Bureau's charges with the sternly principled, devoutly religious man he's been observing. Crisis of conscience? Not really: O'Neill swallows hard, makes one Oscar-clip speech, and then sets about stealing Hanssen's Palm Pilot. For better and (mostly) worse, Breach sticks close to what actually happened; when Hanssen finally goes down, after making one last drop at a park near his Virginia home, our hero isn't even there.

Part of the problem with Breach may be that its antagonist comes across as so much more formidable than his pursuer. It's easy to imagine Phillippe, whose mannequin features practically define callow, as Stephen Glass, squirming in the steely-eyed gaze of his suspicious editor. (Hayden Christensen, a similarly limited actor, did a workmanlike job in the role.) O'Neill, however, is at once the scrutinizer and the scrutinized, keeping tabs on Hanssen while maintaining his own cover opposite an expert in the art of deception, and Phillippe never seems quite sure whether he's supposed to be intrepid or apprehensive. Cooper eats him alive, and to the extent that the film works, it functions primarily as a character study of this deeply weird individual, who evidently harbored no ill will against the United States and was paid a pittance for his information—not much more than a million dollars over more than two decades. Why did he do it? Cooper cannily suggests a superiority complex gone haywire, making Hanssen the kind of guy for whom every fleeting interaction becomes a contest of wills.

Actually, the most compelling conflict in Breach pits Hanssen against his God. He may have been a traitor and a perv, but his devotion to the Catholic church was no act, and while the film's attempts at ticking-clock suspense mostly fall flat, Ray does manage to eke considerable ironic pathos from the way that O'Neill repeatedly uses Hanssen's noblest instincts against him. Whenever the younger agent finds himself backed into a corner, he experiences an abrupt crisis of faith—an ethically dubious ploy that penetrates Hanssen's otherwise impregnable emotional fortress without fail. It's a bit like flushing out a terrorist by deliberately starving kittens outside his front door; were Phillippe remotely capable of expressing the inner turmoil such a betrayal of trust would likely engender, Breach might have found a psychological fissure well worth exploring.

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