While rebuking a wayward F.B.I. spook, one of Breach’s characters says, “The whys are not important,” a statement that sums up the strengths and limitations of this so-so espionage thriller. It epitomizes a film that is task- and not character-oriented, implying that personal motives and psychological make-up are of no ultimate importance in the face of massive and deadly crimes. Not only does the film use this statement as both a narrative and political strategy, it also adopts it as a moral point of view. Breach doesn’t ask questions about the deviousness of American foreign policy, nor does it delve into the psychological makeup of the schizoid personality at its center—it just gives us a mouse to catch, and we hope that the hero is up to the challenge. The film is surprisingly absorbing on this level, but it’s also good enough to give you a whiff of the more complex movie that might have been.
Wannabe agent Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe) is sent to work with F.B.I. stalwart Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper), initially, he’s told, to sniff out the older man’s “sexual deviancy.” Yet O’Neill finds no trace of perversion: Hanssen is an ultra-conservative, arch-Catholic, super-pious rock of a man and O’Neill is nearly tricked into blind admiration until the full extent of Hanssen’s rap sheet is revealed. Aside from being a sicko, Hanssen has, in his 25 years at the bureau, also perpetrated the largest security breach in US history. Numerous American agents have died for Hanssen’s sins and, with his retirement fast approaching, he’s about to get away scot-free. O’Neill is recruited to catch him in the act of espionage and expose his crimes. With that, the race is on.
To be sure, there are minor amounts of intrigue involving ambivalence towards F.B.I. service: O’Neill has to reconcile the fact that he’s got to lie not only to his “boss”, but to his wife Juliana (Caroline Dhavernas) in order to be an effective agent in the war on espionage. And there are also a few (wholly unconvincing) husband-wife blowups as Hanssen infiltrates the younger man’s life, unloading secret porno tapes involving Juliana. But the film doesn’t really have much to say in this regard beyond “lying is bad for your relationship.” Breach’s main point of interest is the bizarre spectacle of Hanssen, a man who is simultaneously a God-fearing right-winger and an agent for the Soviets, not to mention a sexually conservative ideologue who writes internet bondage porn about his oblivious spouse (Kathleen Quinlan) on the Internet. He seems determined to privately defile everything to which he has publicly pledged allegiance, and he’s all the more fascinating for it.
Alas, the film only half-explores the fissures of the character’s soul. Hanssen is treated as interesting only insofar as he provides menace and horror: he’s sort of a pencil-pushing Hannibal Lecter, except he doesn’t let on that he’s a killer. The film uses that sense of horror to cloud our minds and quash any thoughts deviating from the mission to bring him down. This allows for great tension as the mission progresses: we’re given an objective, a monstrous villain who seeps into the hero’s life, and the consequences of not succeeding (which are indeed personal as well as legal and moral). But neither director Billy Ray nor his co-scenarists Adam Mazer and William Rotko have any interest in opening up this exquisite shell of a man to see what lurks inside. The film isn’t really interested in finding out what the enigmatic Hanssen is composed of, to come up with a hypothesis for his behavior. And in leaving us hanging with that issue, it dooms itself to be nothing more than a very superior Washington thriller instead of the probing psychological drama it might have been.
If it seems I’m being overly harsh to Breach, bear in mind that its strengths are what lift me up to see its failings. Ray is very, very good at using space and framing to create dread—he’s not a montage director, but more of an austere, less flamboyant Alan J. Pakula, using rooms and hallways and streetscapes to inundate us with a sense that some new threat or clue is hidden out there. Though relentlessly linear in plotting, the film favors mood over cliché, drawing our attention away from certain all-too-familiar story elements via an all-encompassing, highly-satisfactory sense of dread. And though I can’t verify the truth of the characterizations, “inspired” as they are by an actual case, the portrait of Janssen is well-drawn enough—especially by Cooper—to be entirely credible. It’s just that credible and complete are not the same thing, just as spooky and sinister aren’t necessarily penetrating and insightful.
Breach is a nail-biter, no question about it: it’s a more than watchable movie that always delivers and never bores in its molasses-crawl to the finish line. But as the story is based on an actual case of espionage, and as its chief aggressor is a man of baroque psychological contradictions, I feel we’re somehow entitled to more than just a thriller about a heroic agent and the bogeyman. Leaving aside the matter of politics (no doubt America wished it had someone just as capable as Hanssen ensconced behind the Iron Curtain), it’s just not interested in how people work. Though it makes a couple of overtures about the lonely life of F.B.I. agents (spoiler: O’Neill drops the bureau for law practice, while superior Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney) continues her life of tragic emptiness: end spoiler), it has little interest in examining its quarry—and thus neglects the real problem that needs to be solved. You will not regret your choice to see Breach, but you just might regret some of the choices the film makes in its rush to be as “normal” a movie as possible.
House contributor Travis Mackenzie Hoover is a freelance writer based in Toronto.