Everyone on the “Breach” payroll has one person to thank: Chris Cooper. You know, the guy in the background of dozens of films like “American Beauty” and “Adaptation” that all cosmically turn out successful (nudge, nudge). Cooper commands the screen as a chilling Robert Hanssen, a real life FBI agent convicted of espionage in 2001. We hang on his every movement in perfectly plotted suspense, as he stalks dubiously from scene to scene. But even Cooper has to be thankful for a wonderful script.
The film chronicles the two-month covert investigation leading to Hanssen’s arrest. Agent Kate Bourroughs (Laura Linney) tasks freshman agent Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillipe) with slipping into Hanssen’s confidence as his personal assistant, while collecting evidence to build the FBI’s case. The relationship soon develops into one of mentor and pupil as an unstable Hanssen didactically spouts his religious and bureaucratic ideology to O’Neill, while always testing the loyalty of his new clerk. O’Neill can only keep up with his new boss’s expectations by creating a complex framework of lies, which threatens to shatter at any moment as Hanssen works his way ever deeper into O’Neill’s personal life.
The acting duet between Cooper and Phillipe is essential to the success of “Breach”. Although Phillipe gives the same stiff performance we’ve come to expect from him, he gets away with it in the role of the tentative O’Neill. Yet we hardly notice Phillipe on screen, with all eyes on Cooper, waiting for him to discover the investigation and unleash wrath worthy of a Soviet spy. The filmmakers know this, and do nearly everything right to highlight the performance.
The one word to describe “Breach” is intelligent. From the camerawork, to all around good performances, to the slightest audio cues, everything works. Director Billy Ray gives us the refreshing experience of the subtle scene, a lost art in Hollywood. He respects his viewing audience enough to move the action to the background, even off-screen in some cases, because we are smart enough to know what is going on, and sometimes that is the least important element.
However, the film is not without flaws. “Breach” employs the “clean up the party before the parents get home” routine a bit too often, as O’Neill constantly battles the clock to reorganize Hanssen’s belongings after searching for evidence. At times we fear it to be the film’s only device for suspense. There is also Phillipe’s cardboard persona, which leaves us feeling more should be at stake than just his life. The climax, O’Neill’s time of greatest danger and crisis, passes us by without any feeling of jeopardy whatsoever.
Nonetheless, “Breach” proves one of the best flicks to come our way in 2007. The cast may not attract you at first glance, but give Chris Cooper a chance to show you why all his projects turn into gold. This one is no exception.