Monday, June 18, 2007


The why doesn't matter

By Edward Copeland
For his second film as a director, Billy Ray again tells the story of convincing liars, only in Breach the lies surrounding FBI Agent Robert Hanssen certainly have more serious consequences than the flamboyant fibs of Stephen Glass in Shattered Glass. The end result is a film nearly as great as Ray's directing debut.

For a story with a denouement most viewers will know, Ray manages to build a lot of genuine suspense as he spins the tale of the FBI operative Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe) who helped bring Hanssen down.

What makes Breach such an exceptional film is Chris Cooper who, in a career already full of memorable performances, delivers one of his very best as Hanssen. The easy path would have been to play Hanssen as a sneering villain, but the screenplay by Ray, Adam Mazer and William Rotko and Cooper's performance instead creates a layered portrait of a man full of contradictions.

Robert Hanssen betrayed his country and cost people their lives and who knows what else by selling secrets to the Soviets and the Russians, but Breach makes the viewer develop empathy for the man without ever excusing the inexcusable things he did.

On the DVD commentary, Ray comments that at one point he told Phillippe that he was very good and says that the actor replied, "I can be better" and I'm inclined to side with Phillippe. At times, he does stand up well in scenes opposite Cooper and a great supporting turn by Laura Linney as his superior, but Phillippe also is burdened with the film's weakest elements: domestic scenes between O'Neill and his East German-born wife (Caroline Dhavernas).

I understand the parallel that is trying to be set up between the O'Neills' marriage (he has been reared Catholic; she's a lapsed Protestant) and the Hanssens' marriage (both Robert and his wife (Kathleen Quinlan) are superdevout Opus Dei followers), but every time we get to the scenes between Phillippi and Dharvernas, the film screeches to a halt.

Thankfully, there aren't enough of those scenes to truly harm what is otherwise a suspenseful, watchable and fascinating film. The DVD commentary is worth listening to as well, not only for Ray's insights but because it also includes the real Eric O'Neill discussing how the case actually went down.

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What a coincidence, I just rented this film last night. I thought it was excellent. When it was in theaters I made a mental note to see it because it looked interesting and before I knew it it was gone. Such is the fate of the "good" movie.

My thoughts exactly on those scenes. All I kept think was, "okay, this is the part where he's going to blow up at her." The Donnie Brasco subplot.

Still a very solid tense drama. Cooper is always on and he was great in this.
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