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Tue February 13, 2007
Drive a truck.
By John DeSando, WCBE's It's Movie Time
"That the spy will fabricate his information is a mere commonplace. But in the sphere of political and revolutionary action, relying partly on violence, the professional spy has every facility to fabricate the very facts themselves, and will spread the double evil of emulation in one direction, and of panic, hasty legislation, unreflecting hate, on the other. However, this is an imperfect world --" Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent
Go figure: FBI agent Robert Hanssen was the most notorious spy in American history, responsible for the deaths of 50 operatives, three of those assassinated Soviet spies working for the US. In prison for life, he now spends 23 hours a day in solitary confinement. How could you make a dull movie out of this setup? Director Billy Ray, who helmed a neat little thriller about a newspaper reporter liar in Shattered Glass, has achieved the seemingly impossible: Robert Hanssen's capture in Breach is less interesting than Paris Hilton partying with Britney Spears, even with panties.
Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillipe) is assigned to Hanssen (Chris Cooper) to monitor him allegedly for porno on his computer; the real reason is to build a case against Hanssen for espionage. Because there is little back-story to establish why Hanssen sells secrets, the most action comes from O'Neill's growing admiration for the Catholic, family-centered Hanssen, who does exchange tapes with international friends of lovemaking with his own wife, but whose life is otherwise stable, even caring towards O'Neill and his suspicious wife.
Besides being a boring office intrigue (we never see Hanssen with Soviet contacts and only in February 2001 do we see him make his final drop and get arrested), Breach provides little character motivation and scant excitement. If you consider the intrigue of getting Hanssen's palm pilot contents or sweeping his car exciting, then you haven't seen Casino Royale or even The Good Shepherd, a slow thriller but a veritable potboiler by comparison.
Chris Cooper is easy to watch with his anguished common man persona, and Laura Linney as special agent Kate Burroughs is a fine deconstruction of the attractive woman who has given her life to her job, namely catching Hanssen. Low-key Phillipe's O'Neill is just a low-level employee with brains given a chance to become agent, nothing more nor less.
Breach does succeed in depicting a depressing world of lies and failures, often capped with achievements so compromising that the most profound conversations center around whether or not an FBI career is worth it. I suppose "Yes" if your job is going through X Files. Otherwise, drive a truck.
John DeSando teaches film at Franklin University and co-hosts WCBE 90.5's "It's Movie Time," which can be heard streaming at www.wcbe.org Fridays at 3:01 pm and 8:01 pm and on demand anytime. Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.RR.com