In “Breach,” Cooper plays Robert Hanssen, the FBI agent who was arrested Feb. 18, 2001, for leaking billions of dollars worth of government secrets to the Soviet Union. Cooper conveys evil thoughts that the film’s script only hints at, and he does this without a more well-known actor’s histrionics and showboating. Cooper uses silence far more loudly than shouted words. He embodies Hanssen’s mannerisms, and it is incredible to watch.
However, one of the film’s biggest faults is that its focus is slightly askew. The audience is made to see Hanssen from the point of view of Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe), an agent-to-be who is recruited by the heads of the service (embodied here by Laura Linney and Dennis Haysbert) to try to smoke Hanssen out and catch him in the act of sabotage. Hanssen’s expertise at lie detection and FBI protocol make O’Neill’s job nearly impossible to pull off: He has to immerse himself in Hanssen’s world of smoke and mirrors while retaining his credibility with his real bosses.
“Breach” is Ray’s follow-up to his terrific 2003 debut, “Shattered Glass,” and as in that film, he uses issues of credibility to explore the politics of an office environment. The monotony of the windowless workplaces and the pillars of paperwork add up to nothing more than an internationally conscious Kinko’s. It’s like “Dilbert” meets “The Good Shepherd.” Ray’s viewpoint extends directly to Cooper’s interpretation of Hanssen as a priggish worker bee who is more upset when his computer’s Internet access is faulty than when a gun is pointed at him.
Though Ray keeps the story moving at a nice clip, his restrained direction highlights the limitations his approach dictates: Viewers learn almost nothing about Hanssen except the bare necessities of his lifestyle. Ray isn’t interested in why Hanssen committed such heinous crimes, and Ray corners himself into delving into Hanssen’s personal life when it is too late, showing everything as a matter of fact. His religious convictions are strongly communicated (he goes to church every day, is a member of Opus Dei and believes the Soviet Union collapsed because of its “godlessness”). His private life is made up of deviant sexual practices and lurid Internet browsing.
It is never made clear why he betrayed the country he swore an allegiance to, ultimately causing the deaths of an untold number of people and hampering the government in its efforts to maintain a peace with the Russians. Only Hanssen knows.
Perhaps the answers are too insidious or too personal for the film to adequately explore. This is a daring approach, but Hanssen’s cryptic nature keeps the film aloof, if firmly planted in reality. And Cooper’s subtle, brilliant performance creates an atmosphere in and of itself, and it transcends the film’s limitations.
“Breach” was written by Adam Mazer, Billy Ray and William Rotko, and directed by Ray.
“Breach” received three out of four stars.