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2007-06-25 17:22

What it’s about:

Breach is based on the true story of Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper), an FBI agent who was arrested for treason in 2001. Hanssen sold American secrets to Russia for 22 of his 25 years in service. The movie covers the last six months of Hanssen’s career with the FBI. In a bid to trap him, the bureau hires Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillipe), an ambitious trainee agent, to act as Hanssen’s assistant. At first Eric finds it difficult to believe the accusations against Hanssen, but soon Hanssen’s double life starts to reveal itself.

What we thought of it:

When Robert Hanssen first meets Eric O’ Neill he challenges: “Tell me five things about yourself, one being a lie.”, offering to correctly guess which is the lie. You immediately realise Hanssen can see straight through Eric and any possible pretences. Will he find out Eric is a fake? Can Eric outsmart one of the most intelligent men in America long enough for the FBI to build a case around him? It is within these scenes that the ‘action’ of the film lies.

When a film is so strongly centred on exploring the depths of a delusional character the acting becomes key. Chris Cooper is brilliant as Robert Hanssen. He succeeds in making him believable. There are moments when he makes your skin crawl, perfecting a conservative exterior with a hint of creepiness. He makes us wonder why someone would commit such a crime, how people can live two different lives at the same time and how they cope with living a lie.

Cooper’s Hanssen is human, and living a lie does have a harmful effect on his emotional state. Basically, he succeeds in making you sympathise with this twisted man. In one scene Hanssen is sitting for a picture for his twenty-five year service portrait. As the photographer fusses over him, he feels more and more scrutinised and you can see how he later not only wants to escape the room and situation but also his own skin and his own life.

Cooper never overplays the role and takes his time to unravel each layer of the character’s personality. He and director Billy Ray succeed in showing how Hanssen’s religious and sexual obsessions, his superior intellect and contempt for his country somehow fuses into a type of philosophy, which guides his actions.

Ryan Phillipe’s acting is also sufficient, but it isn’t on the level of Cooper’s. Billy Ray excels with the direction. Hanssen’s life story sounds so much like a movie than real life, it would have been easy to overdramatise events. But Ray goes for understatement rather than overkill, at the risk of perhaps moving a little too slowly at times.

Mainly, the film asks why Hanssen betrayed the US government. It seems he never spent any of the money he received and he still lived a fairly middle class existence. If not for the money, then why did he do it? This is one of the central themes the movie explores and attempts to answer in the end.

Other themes explored include the mental strain of living a lie, how you often have to choose between successful relationships and a successful career. It also shows a different side of the FBI; instead of a glamorous high-tech unit, it depicts the agency as drab and behind the times, showing them in dreary offices, working on outdated computers. A refreshing approach.

There is a dark side the movie only slightly touches on, the fact that Hanssen’s betrayal actually costs many people their lives. To him it might just have been a game to prove his own intelligence and that American security is sloppy, but to other people it was a situation of life or death.

By the end of the film, you come to understand Hanssen and what was possibly going on in his head and what made him commit the crime. This is what makes the film worthwhile; it takes a personal angle to what could have been an empty, action-orientated spy thriller.

- Annel Malan
Director Billy Ray gives a human face to one of America's most notorious "traitors".

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Bjron 2007-04-26 06:30 PM
Cant Wait.... Great review, I really do not like this actor, Ryan. But after reading the review Im looking forward to seeing this one. Great job guys! Keep it up

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