Chris Cooper, Ryan Phillippe, Laura Linney, Dennis Haysbert, Kathleen
Quinlan, Gary Cole, Bruce Davison, Mary Jo Deschanel,
Director: Billy Ray
Watching two U.S. government spy thrillers in almost as many months has led me to a very interesting theory: FBI and CIA agents are the world’s most boring human beings. Despite a large number of films and TV series that would love to prove the American public otherwise, the sheer fact that “Breach” and “The Good Shepherd” are both grounded in reality all but confirms my suspicions are true. How else can you explain my desire to take a nap through the middle of both films? If not from a complete lack of interest, then certainly from a flawed execution, the latter of which seems to be the biggest issue surrounding Billy Ray’s sophomore effort. Dry and ineffective, “Breach” may feature a killer concept (“the greatest security breach in U.S. history,” according to the posters), but it has absolutely no kick.
Ryan Phillippe stars as FBI agent-in-training Eric O’Neill, a computer whiz assigned to spy on intelligence expert Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper) after he’s suspected of working as a double agent for the Russians. His handler, Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney), doesn’t inform O’Neill of why he’s been brought in to spy on Hanssen, other than the fact that he appears to be a sexual deviant who likes to make sex tapes with his unknowing wife. When his cover is threatened by Hanssen’s inability to trust anyone, however, O’Neill is forced into a game of cat-and-mouse with the one man who was able to outthink his friends and coworkers for over 15 years.
Writer/director Billy Ray definitely chose one of the more interesting government spy stories to make a film about, but it’s also his downfall, as anyone who read about the arrest of Hanssen in 2001 knows exactly how the story goes. As such, there’s not much suspense to the story, nor is there any excitement. The movie just sort of floats by on its own accord as Chris Cooper chews up the scenery and schools co-star Ryan Phillippe on being a good actor. Laura Linney is easily forgettable as O’Neill’s reclusive superior, while supporting turns by Gary Cole and Dennis Haysbert are easily some of the year's biggest wastes of talent.
What makes “Breach” ultimately so disappointing, though, is the immense amount of promise that a story like this has in Hollywood. It’s actually quite hypocritical to say so – since most critics (including myself) can never seem to shut up about the inconsistencies of movies based on true events – but “Breach” is the perfect instance of a script that would have benefited from a little punching up. Still, if you like your spy thrillers talky and unsuspenseful, then “Breach” delivers twofold, but you’d probably find just as much entertainment watching the 2001 “Dateline” special on the real-life Hanssen.
The DVD release of “Breach” is certainly a step up from what I’ve come to expect out of Universal. Highlighted by an excellent audio commentary track with writer/director Billy Ray and former FBI operative Eric O’Neill, the single-disc effort also features 18 minutes of deleted/extended scenes (including a few with the criminally underused Gary Cole), a short making-of featurette (“Breaching the Truth”), and a character featurette on Robert Hanssen (curiously “brought to you by Volkswagen”). Also included is the original “Dateline” story on the U.S. traitor (“The Mole”) for those interested in all the facts.