From the very first moments of the film “Breach”, we know we are enmeshed in history, and from the presence of former Attorney General John Ashcroft, we know it’s recent. Ashcroft’s speech tells the end of the story we are about to see, and because Robert Hanssen’s destiny is already laid out before us, what follows becomes a strong character study rather than the latest cliché spy thriller.
The film stars Chris Cooper as Hanssen, the infamous traitor in the F.B.I. who sold secrets to the Russians from the mid-eighties to his capture in 2001. He has been highly elusive and very adept at covering his tracks, even at one time being appointed to find a mole in the Bureau; he is essentially asked to find himself. As the film begins, the top minds at the F.B.I., played by Laura Linney and Dennis Haysbert, are preparing their last push in gathering evidence to indict him before he hits the mandatory retirement age.
They enlist Eric O’Neill, played by Ryan Philippe, who serves as the film’s protagonist. He is a surveillance operative who is trying to reach agent status when he is pulled into a seemingly boring desk job alongside Hanssen, presumably to keep an eye out for Hanssen’s reputed lewd conduct. When he is informed of what is really at stake, he has to employ all his skills of manipulation into getting Hanssen to incriminate himself.
The bulk of the film follows O’Neill as he delves further into Hanssen’s treason, and his attempts to assist the Bureau in their investigation. All the while, the job strains things between him and his wife, exacerbated by Hanssen’s constant attempts to interfere in Eric’s home life.
Through Cooper’s performance, Hanssen becomes a fascinating character, and the exploration of his actions and his reasons for them become the strongest part of the film. Hanssen is a family man with seemingly strong Catholic convictions, and he continually pressures Eric to attend church and convert his wife.
This upstanding moral behavior seems contradictory to his treasonous acts, and indeed, that complexity seems to be the center of Cooper’s approach. What would lead a man to such despicable measures? No easy answers are given in the end, although Hanssen gives several possible reasons for his actions, though as to which is the correct one, it is impossible to say.
It is said a couple of times in the film and in the trailers that this was the worst security breach in U.S. history. This is certainly ample fodder for a film, but the writers do themselves credit by leading the focus away from the cold hard facts and not indulging in conventional spy thriller elements.
The rest of the acting is quite solid. Philippe does a good job of making his character believable in his ability to manipulate Hanssen, who is most likely the smartest character in the film. The power play between the two men is the central conflict. While it’s significant history, the human drama that plays out is more interesting than any leaked information or stolen documents.