Spy movies basically come in two flavors. There are the action movies with the espionage background, like the Bond and Bourne movies, and then there are the movies that focus on the more mundane aspects of spy craft. These can be just as exciting, in their own way, as the high-octane actioner, if done correctly. Breach was done correctly.
This fact-based story of the worst spy scandal in U.S. history is lean, taut and focused, with a first rate cast giving career-level performances. Chris Cooper plays Robert Hanssen, a top FBI counter-intelligence agent who, as the story begins late 2000, has been assigned to a new post in Washington, D.C., supposedly overseeing the Bureau’s computer security division, working with an ambitious young employee, Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe). For his part, O’Neill has been recruited to keep an eye on Hanssen by an agent named Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney), who tells O’Neill that his boss is suspected of sexually harassing some female employees.
This seems to run counter to O’Neill’s own observations, which show that Hanssen is a devout family man, although rather severe and humorless. Both men are experts in computer security and also practicing Catholics, which initially leads the two men to form a bond with each other and their respective families. Finally frustrated with the feeling that he is wasting his time and betraying a good agent, O’Neill confronts Burroughs and demands to know the truth. She drops the bomb on him: Hanssen has been selling secrets, first to the Soviets and then to the Russians, for more than a decade. This plunges the inexperienced O’Neill deep into a high-level investigation being run by the Bureau director himself.
This movie is anchored by several strong performances and believable relationships between its principal characters. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Chris Cooper is rock solid as Hanssen, disappearing into the pious, demanding man as much as he did into his character in Adaptation. Ryan Phillippe has left behind the pretty-boy image he was labeled with early in his career to turn in a series of mature performances in films like Crash and Flags of Our Fathers. For her part, Laura Linney is extremely believable in a role that is equal parts tough and compassionate.
The lean, economical script doesn’t falsely hype-up a story that needs none of the usual Hollywood pyrotechnics. This movie correctly focuses on the relationship between Hanssen and O’Neill, how the young aspiring agent struggles with the responsibility that is thrust upon him and how it impacts his marriage. The final arrest is almost an anti-climax, but that is no criticism, since that scene is just the payoff for a final dramatic confrontation between Cooper and Phillippe immediately before.
As an antidote for the sometimes overblown adventures of Bourne and Bond, Breach is a thinking person’s spy movie.