Normally the phrase 'based on a true story’ is a dire warning: a cheap sell for a unimaginative story or an excuse for unbelievable characters. Not so with Breach, a gripping drama written and directed by Billy Ray (Shattered Glass, Flightplan), about the most notorious double agent in American history.
Ryan Phillippe (Gosford Park, Flags of Our Fathers) plays an ambitious FBI Agent, Eric O’Neill, who is seconded by Special Agent Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney) to work undercover as assistant to Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper), who is suspected of sexual deviancy.
But he quickly discovers more: Hanssen is in fact a traitor, the worst is US history, guilty of selling secrets for over 20 years. O’Neill is forced to engage in a game of spy-versus-spy to obtain information from an espionage expert. Well-managed tension mounts, as O’Neill finds himself fighting not only for his country, but his marriage and eventually his life.
Slow-burning and psychological, Breach’s action all happen inside its characters’ heads and, though the actual outcome of Hanssen’s arrest and subsequent trial is revealed at the beginning of the film, this only heightens the impact. From the religious devotion of the Hanssens, to the lonely life of Burroughs to the marital difficulties faced by the O’Neills everything is played straight with no attempt at moralizing or exposition.
Oscar-winner Cooper astounds as Hanssen. Drawing a character from real-life – especially such recent history – is hard, and Cooper excels at bringing together the different elements of Hanssen: his devotion to church, his charm, his intelligence and dedication to duty, and the almost-unbelievable truth about his treachery.
Alongside, Phillippe gets an opportunity to flex his acting muscles rather than his physical ones, as a hero torn between faith, truth and duty. Linney as Burroughs is also excellent, playing both controller and psychiatrist to the young O’Neill whilst showing him the realities of the ambition he’s always harboured, and newcomer Caroline Dhavernas as Juliana O’Neill gives a wrenching portrayal of a woman fighting to save her marriage from Hanssen’s interference and her husband’s inner demons.
The script is tightly written but not austere, with some classic one-liners that add realism and humour. The only cloying moment is at the end, as O’Neill hands resigns after Hanssen’s arrest: whereas the spy’s motives are kept unclear and unjustified, O’Neill’s abandonment of his dreams looks too hard for poignancy and has slight airs of the ending of The Devil Wears Prada.
From the acting, to the production and the writing there are no weak links here. Everything is believable down to the fact that you leave afterwards wondering if anything or anyone is actually what they seem to be. Wearing faces as masks and masks as faces is a reality that we all live in.