When the FBI found itself face-to-face with the most damaging breach of sensitive material in U.S. history, they gave the most dangerous job of the entire case to a rookie. Like many young recruits at the Bureau, Eric O'Neill (Ryan Philippe) is hoping to gain a promotion to Agent for the time being, he enjoys his work as an operative for the FBI's Special Surveillance Group (SSG), often dressing as a homeless person to eavesdrop and snap photos of suspected terrorist cell members. However, Eric's interest in law enforcement extends beyond cloak-and-dagger work. His recent proposal on a new database system has made the rounds, eventually gaining the attention of senior Agent Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney), who assigns Eric to the new Information Assurance Division, where he will clerk for Agent Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper). Just months from retirement, Hanssen's a minor legend within the Bureau the former head of the Soviet Analytical Unit and liaison to the State Department, Hanssen's returned to the Hoover building to overhaul IT security. But Burroughs also tells Eric that Hanssen's a sexual deviant who has posted lurid material on the Internet, and that he should take notes on everything that happens in the office, no matter how minor. Hanssen himself turns out to be a series of contradictions distrustful, rude, solitary, and bullying, but also deeply devoted to his wife and family, and a sincere member of the Catholic Church, attending Mass daily. However, he soon finds himself drawn to the younger Eric, an inactive Catholic, and hopes to bring him back to the church, along with his young wife Juliana (Caroline Dhavernas). Juliana, who grew up in East Germany and isn't particularly religious, isn't sure what to make of her husband's new boss and his wife (Kathleen Quinlan). Eric, on the other hand, may understand why the Bureau does not want to be embarrassed by their top computer expert getting caught up with online porn, but he also thinks that Hanssen's a better guy than most, and in any case he doesn't want to work some kind of low-grade "perversion detail." But it's only when he requests reassignment that Agent Burroughs reveals the true nature of the investigation they've recently learned that Robert Hanssen has been betraying U.S. secrets to the Soviet Union and Russia for more than 15 years, and they're determined to catch him making one final drop.
* * *
Breach (2007) marks the second time that the story of Robert Hanssen has earned a screen portrayal the 2002 telefilm Master Spy: The Robert Hanssen Story starring William Hurt capitalized on a Norman Mailer script and direction by Lawrence Schiller to get the Hanssen story dramatized barely a year after his high-profile bust. However, the key operative, Eric O'Neill, left the FBI three months after the Hanssen operation and considered writing a book. Instead, he wound up pitching a movie, making Breach an unusually accurate and intimate look at the downfall of an American traitor whose motives remain somewhat inscrutable to this day. Director Billy Ray handles the material smartly, aware that the story, when kept mostly to the facts, offers nothing in the way of explosions, cliff-hangers, or even a car chase. Instead, Breach plays out with the somber tension of a John le Carré thriller, where the drama, and the suspense, are largely internalized. Our point-of-view remains with Eric O'Neill throughout most of the story, aware that his task doesn't merely involve trying to outsmart a far more experienced man one who, at times, it appears can't be outsmarted but also to act as the primary conduit of human intelligence for the largest operation in FBI history, despite not even being an Agent. The very context of the piece is what drives the suspense, giving the most banal things and events (a traffic jam, a walk down a hall, a security keypad, a four-pocket briefcase) a Hitchcockian flair. Indeed, on the surface, Breach looks as if it could have been shot for far less than most Hollywood films, largely unfolding in homes and offices, in churches and on city streets. The actors are the script's greatest asset, led by the marvelous Chris Cooper, who effectively conveys Robert Hanssen's arrogance, which itself is fed by his hatred of bureaucracy and his lack of recognition within an organization he's served for 25 years as Hanssen, Cooper is all too human, so much that he's never quite monstrous, but he's nonetheless unpredictable, and intimidating enough to get most people off-balance. The well-rounded cast features Laura Linney, Dennis Haysbert, and Gary Cole in key supporting parts, but the underrated Ryan Phillippe is the only one tasked to match Cooper in scene after scene, effectively reminding us that O'Neill's conflict isn't merely organizational, or internal, but instead vaguely Oedipal. Betraying the traitorous Hanssen will earn O'Neill favor with the influential Burroughs, but even in the end he finds his fallen quasi-father figure pitiful, and impossible to despise.
Universal's DVD release of Breach offers a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Director Billy Ray and the real-life Eric O'Neill can be heard on a chatty commentary track, which includes plenty of details on how carefully real-life events were recreated, sometimes down to the smallest details (including actual items from the case), while also noting which parts of the script were created or compressed for dramatic purposes. Also on board are eight deleted and two alternate scenes with optional commentary by Ray and editor Jeffrey Ford, the "making-of" featurette "Breaching the Truth" (10 min.) "Anatomy of a Character" (6 min.), and the 2001 NBC-TV "Dateline" segment "The Mole" (19 min.). Keep-case.