Breach is so good that it's intensely frustrating when it goes dumb and predictable and becomes a standard spy move. Billy Ray, the director, is carving out a nice little niche for himself on true-life institutional thrillers, where half the crime is the bureaucracy that allows the central psychopath to flourish. To some extent, Breach is stronger than Shattered Glass, his previous film about the New Republic, because it isn't restrained by a need to embellish the goodness of real life figures for greater access. At the same time there's something missing from the movie's core.
The story of Robert Hanssen(Chris Cooper) is partly a psychological portrait of how a devoutly religiously and incredibly intelligent FBI agent ended up selling incredible secrets to the Soviets. For the first half hour or so the movie bristles with life as it watches him push against the FBI bureaucracy to reform the antiquated networking system, simply steal unallocated new computers off palettes rather than fill out requisition forms, and sneer at the gun culture that's keeping the FBI in the 19th Century. The movie is set in February of 2001, and though 9/11 is never directly alluded to, the FBI's failures hangs in the background. The other protagonist, Ed O'Neill(Ryan Phillipe), begins the film eavesdropping on an un-named middle eastern couple having a public fight. He's pulled off within the first few minutes to work with Hansenn and we never learn if they were connected to terrorism or just an angry couple on the streets, but the point is quickly made that he's a frustrated reformer as well. It's also glancing alluded to that he doesn't know a word of Arabic.
O'Neill is assigned as Hanssen's assistant, with vague instructions to watch him because he's accused of sexual deviancy. And for a while it's a thrill just to see Cooper treat Phillipe, whose grown into his looks but still has a little bit of an unearned pretty boy expression, as a nuisance and a rube, and without special pleading or begging, get him to understand the source of his frustrations. When Cooper contemptuously stomps through a server room and explains precisely to Gary Cole (in full on Lumbergh mode) what Linux servers are needed, what the bandwidth requirements are, and what other organizations they should be looking to model, it's a thrill. Partly because the movie doesn't throw 24 techno goobledy gook at the viewer- Ray puts as much care into making the computers accurately early 2001 as a Merchant Ivory film puts into its cuff links and parasols. And you want to see Hansenn succeed, because he does convince you, even knowing the facts of the case going in, that he cares about making the FBI into a proper investigatory unit, and somehow that's tied into his brand of Opus Dei Catholicism- which he describes as never taking the easy route to salvation.
It's when the thriller elements slip into high gear that the movie becomes a lesser thing. Eventually it's revealed that the FBI knows about the extent of Hanssen's betrayal and that the entire operation is a set-up for O'Neill to gain his trust. This leads to 2 or 3 scenes of the clock ticking while O'Neill tries to copy files before Hansenn returns to his palm pilot, or keep him distracted while agents can tear apart his car. These are scenes out of a million other thrillers, and not only does Ray not stage them with any particularly snap, but they all end the same way, with O'Neill convincing Hansenn by a show of his growing religious faith under his mentor's tutelage. (Hansenn tells O'Neill to pray more, and so O'Neill covers for being in the wrong office by getting down on his knees and reciting the rosary.) Every one of those scenes, and the arguments they have over faith in religion and trust in each other are crackerjack and Cooper and Phillipe put the perfect amount of desperation and guile into them, but they're all basically identical, and one of them would suffice.
The problem is the actual story is a character study, and not a cat and mouse thriller, but the movie keeps trying to contort itself into the latter, and its got just enough integrity to make you realize how false that is. Hanssen was found out not because of anyone's great investigative skills, but because some ex-soviet officers sold the knowledge to the American government. He didn't get away with it because he was a master of deception, but because the FBI's culture was that incompetent and trusting of its own agents (if the Good Shepherd wasn't so stulifyingly boring, it would make a good double bill). And by the time O'Neill comes on board, all the information about Hanssen's betrayal is known- it's just a matter of catching him in the act so they can get a death penalty case. That results in a silly scene towards the end where Cooper waves a gun wildly at Phillipe, and the falseness of it retrospectively infects the rest of the movie.
To his credit, Ray puts enough trust in Cooper not to write an explanation of why he spied. He presents behavior- praying, hidden camera sex tapes, standing on a desk to fix a network cable, dead drops, touch football with grandkids. Cooper makes these all blend together, and ultimately you get a sense that they're all sincere- that Hansenn doesn't see the difference between showing the flaws in the FBI's structure and selling those flaws at $50,000 a pop to Soviet agents. And although he obviously doesn't live up to his religious standards, the movie doesn't take the easy route of painting him as a shallow hypocrite. The final five word conversation of Cooper and Phillipe, shot by Tak Fujimoto to explicitly recall his work on Silence of the Lambs, is oddly touching as you seen in Cooper's eyes just how much he's failed himself.
I, uh, wrote this post months ago, but left in editing mode, dissatisfied that I hadn't captured the full feeling of the movie- of course now a lot of it has simply vanished from my mind
Labels: Billy Ray, Breach, film, Hanssen, terrorism