"Breach" dispenses with the customary title sequence and dives right in with news footage of Attorney General John Ashcroft announcing the arrest of FBI traitor Robert Hanssen. The film itself shows how they bagged the bad guy, who was one of the most devastatingly successful spies in U.S. history. It is an engaging tale, although the full story is more interesting and even more dramatic.
Ryan Phillipe plays Eric O'Neill, a fledgling FBI man, newlywed and computer whiz trying to earn his stripes at the Bureau. His boss, Kate Burroughs, played by a miscast Laura Linney, assigns him as aide to Robert Hanssen, ably played by Chris Cooper. Hanssen is supposedly a sexual deviant, but the charge seems incongruous to O'Neill, as he gets to know his new boss. Hanssen is a strict Roman Catholic and family man who attends mass every day and so zealous about his faith he tries to bring O'Neill's lapsed Protestant wife into the fold.
Breach also makes it clear that Hanssen dislikes women who wear pants and despises Hillary Clinton. He dismisses an FBI photographer as a "faggot" and does spend time drooling over porn. The treatment is not heavy handed, but viewers will get the subliminal message: this is what traitors are like, conservative, patriarchal, religious, homophobic hypocrites. But we get little sense of what it means for a man of faith to sell secrets to an atheistic Marxist-Leninist regime that persecuted all religious believers. Hanssen's wife Bonnie apparently knew about her husband's early transgressions and made him confess to a priest. Neither went to the FBI about it. Yet another FBI spy was tuned in to Hanssen, whose brother-in-law also worked for the bureau. That would have been interesting stuff but got left out of Breach, a film which, while not preachy, is willing to trade dramatic details for convenient political exposition.
The intrepid O'Neill thinks the sexual rap against Hanssen is bogus, so his boss clues him into the FBI’s real beef: Hanssen's activity for the Soviets since 1985. We see the KGB bumping off some officers the FBI had turned, but Breach conveys little sense of the Cold War and communism. One does get a sense, probably unintentional, that the reason traitors like Hanssen can thrive is the massive and unwieldy federal bureaucracy of which the FBI is part. Those boxes within boxes, flow charts and bureaucratic turf wars provide plenty of places to hide. In reality, the FBI and CIA never did find the destructive mole, who was ultimately sold out by someone on the Soviet side. We hear Kate Burroughs explain this but don't see it happen. Maybe it was a budget issue.
The crafty and tic-ridden Hanssen, who looks like some rodent is gnawing his innards, keeps key data stashed on his palm pilot. The resourceful O'Neill finds a way to download the data and the long befuddled FBI is ready to pounce when Hanssen makes that final dead drop for the Soviets. But why did he do it?
After the arrest Hanssen says "the why doesn't matter." Actually it does matter, a great deal. Breach leaves the feeling it was all some kind of game for the traitor, who was too smart for his own good. We are told that he was the most damaging spy in U.S. history, but there are plenty of contenders for that title, including those who handed nuclear weapons to Stalin, without a movie to their credit.
"Breach" is evidence that, now that the Cold War is over, it is safe to make a move which takes for granted that America deserves loyalty, that its secrets are worth protecting, and that those who catch the bad guys are heroes. Contemporary viewers might easily forget that this was not a given during the heyday of the evil empire, when Hollywood often portrayed the FBI search for treason as monumental paranoiac overkill and homegrown Stalinists as misunderstood idealists. The question for our cinematic future is how tinsel town will portray the war on terror, those who wage it and those who are their targets. Will it be a case of too little, too late there too? Or does "Breach" indicate that the nation may now get the spy movies it deserves?
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