Reviewed in February 2007
Director: Billy Ray. Cast: Ryan Phillippe, Chris Cooper, Laura Linney, Caroline Dhavernas, Dennis Haysbert, Gary Cole, Kathleen Quinlan, Bruce Davison. Screenplay: Adam Mazer & William Rotko and Billy Ray (based on a story by Adam Mazer & William Rotko).

Photo © 2007 Universal Pictures
In moving from Shattered Glass, his debut film as a director, to Breach, his true-crime story of bringing down a spy within the CIA, writer-director Billy Ray has maintained more than an obvious interest in professional deceivers and the tortuous processes of routing them out. Breach also shares with Shattered Glass and even with Flightplan (the rickety airborne thriller starring Jodie Foster, which Ray co-wrote) a lingering fascination with the flat, muted, airless spaces of contemporary white-collar anxiety: the cubicle, the elevator, the lobby, the automobile, the airplane cabin. The voice of conscience, the soothsayings of the villain, and the murmurs of paranoia all share the same basic inflections in all three films. In a strange way, Flightplan, with its double-deckered transatlantic jet and bounteous cargo holds, is the least claustrophobic of the trio; in Shattered Glass and Breach, the blank backgrounds of corporate walls and the brute architecture and chilly cityscapes seem to drain the air of vivacity and set a funereal tone that explains the impostor's desperate jones for a different, better life as much as it augments the cold doubts and hardening disillusion of the skeptics and surveillants around them.

The best news is that, with Breach, Ray has evolved into the kind of director who can really exploit these tensions, joining his writerly themes to his subdued but significant images and thereby cobbling together what feels like an actual movie. It's impossible for me to say the same about Shattered Glass, which hooked too eagerly onto an anecdotal malfeasance that was never as interesting as the charged, quotidian rivalries and agitations in the magazine office as a whole, and whose absurd, immature lead performance sank any hope of Shattered Glass surviving on the strength of characterization. Breach, by locating itself in the nest of the federal government's official bureau of secrets and lies, keeps a tighter bead on the pervasive atmosphere of uncertainty and agnosticism, and does a better job convincing us of its own dramatic stakes. Again, Ray has been seduced by the exceptional degree of the treachery he documents—if Stephen Glass was an especially prolific plagiarist, working for a publication with particularly high investments in its own integrity and value to the culture, Robert Hanssen is an even more towering figure of wrongdoing, selling state intelligence secrets for well over a decade to the U.S.S.R. and Russia (i.e., beyond and despite the ideological overhaul of that nation), all while cultivating a pristine professional and personal reputation. When the CIA felt the first tremors of internal espionage, they put Hanssen in charge of the detecting squad.

The screenplay for Breach is entranced by these dichotomies, perhaps to a fault, and it dwells for a naïvely long time on the young hero's disbelief that Hanssen (Chris Cooper) could possibly be such a devout Christian, a prompt and efficient employee, and a proud paterfamilias and still be a traitor, much less one of such galvanic proportions. It doesn't necessarily help, either, that Ray has perpetuated his problem of casting one cagey and acute professional (Peter Sarsgaard before, and Cooper here) against a mall-friendly ingenue who has to work twice as hard to come half as far. Ryan Phillippe isn't bad, exactly, in the role of Eric O'Neill, the decoy office assistant who lured Hanssen toward his own unraveling, but his own earnestness and drive to succeed translate more powerfully than those same aspects of his putative character, and he's palpably reverent toward Cooper, Laura Linney, and his other better-heeled co-stars. (He also has a distractingly huge knot on his forehead, cruelly emphasized in several lighting schemes; did Reese whomp him with her Oscar on his way out the door?) Breach devotes an awful lot of screentime to the psychological duels and reciprocal bouts of scrutiny between Hanssen and O'Neill, but somehow Chris Cooper never feels remotely susceptible to the cat-and-mouse agilities of Ryan Phillippe. This imbalance in power and authority is, if anything, underlined by the increasing convolutions by which O'Neill collects information on his boss. Two episodes involving a "surprise" photography session and a traffic jam alongside the Potomac especially beggar the limits of plausibility, and they stick both actors with the unenviable job of reiterating the fundamental Are you lying?/No, of course not! dynamic a few too many times.

Thank goodness, then, that the flat, creepy surfaces and sallow lighting of Breach feed so smartly into the suspense that the screenplay often undercuts, and that cinematographer Tak Fujimoto (The Silence of the Lambs, Devil in a Blue Dress, The Sixth Sense) tinkers with our sense of scale and contrast in such subtle, wily ways. When Hanssen fulfills a late errand in a public park, the anomaly of green, open space and leafy, twittering solitude is almost as unsettling, in its much more understated way, as the climactic flight from the city at the end of Se7en. Linney does a sly job of threading some humor into her scenes as the ringleader of the sting operation, teasing Phillippe and tartly folding her laundry when she isn't giving such curt, bracing voice to her anger at Hanssen, whose selling of secrets has invalidated her own decades of hard work (which have surely come at the high price of loneliness and of habitually viewing her own life through a lens of bitter irony). Still, it's Cooper's nimble, quiet resourcefulness you'll remember. He must realize at some level that Phillippe isn't a formidable enough opponent to bring Hanssen's drama into powerful focus, and so without abandoning his co-star, he acts several of his scenes less against the threat of the child's studious eye than against the scouring gaze of divine judgment. Impatient with his country and his colleagues, sympathetic to American enemies, and, in a well-played scene of confession, articulate about the supercilious thrill of lying, thieving, and getting away with it, Cooper's Hanssen is nonetheless felt at all times as a devout man of God. His epiphanic confrontations with his own self-delusion and possible damnation crash more than once across his features—reminiscent, at moments, of that horrible smear of recriminating self-knowledge across his face in Kevin Spacey's garage in American Beauty, but situated in a film where character is revealed in much finer, smaller degrees, making Hanssen's silent Faustian bouts with himself all the more sour and sad to behold. Breach isn't a film to treasure, and perhaps not even one to remember. Come the summer, it may well be a distant memory, but it augurs well for the indubitable if naggingly inconsistent growth of its filmmaker, and it builds toward a few crucial moments where we get inside the mind of a turncoat long enough to sense his arrogance as well as his acrid despair. Grade: B–

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