A Right-Wing Russian Spy Within Our Government: Breach at 10
A right-wing sexual deviant was caught spying for the Russians.
In February of 2001, FBI Agent Robert Hanssen was arrested for spying for Soviet and Russian intelligence against the United States for twenty-two years, from 1979 to 2001. After Hanssen’s arrest, FBI Director Louis J. Freeh called the case one of the worst the agency has ever faced. A young FBI field operative, Eric O'Neill, worked undercover to gather enough evidence to convict Hanssen. The real life story is compelling on its own, and it’s no surprise a film adaptation was produced a few years later in 2007.
Breach director Billy Ray had one film under his belt before tackling the real life story of Hanssen — Shattered Glass, the film starring Hayden Christensen, based on the true accounts of Stephen Glass' journalistic fraud. Ray is probably best known for his screenplay work, working on blockbusters from Volcano to The Hunger Games, while also earning an Oscar nomination for Captain Phillips. The best fit for this small scale, based-on-true-events, spy thriller, Ray, in Breach, expertly balances the high-stakes espionage with the more intimate character moments between Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper) and Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe).
The film opens up with news footage of Attorney General John Ashcroft, in February 2001, announcing the arrest of Hanssen should remind Americans that, “our nation, our free society, is an international target in a dangerous world.” We then see Cooper as Hanssen, praying in church. From the get-go, we see Hanssen is a contradiction. Phillippe’s O’Neill is assigned by Katherine Burroughs (Laura Linney) as a clerk to Hanssen’s office, working undercover to gather evidence on Hanssen’s sexual misconduct. O’Neill, on meeting Hanssen, is dumbfounded that this devout Catholic and family man is being accused of anything. Burroughs reveals to O’Neill later into the investigation that Hanssen is actually being investigated for giving information to the Russians for years, in one instance compromising two Russian agents who were spying for the U.S. Hanssen had fooled the entire intelligence agency and O’Neill had fallen for his act as well.
Religion is the backbone for Hanssen’s deceit in Breach. Having been in the agency for so long, Hanssen believes he knows how the system works. He has no respect for bureaucrats and hurls insults at O’Neill for “following the rules.” But, when it comes to Catholicism, he accepts no diversions. O’Neill is also a Catholic and Hanssen takes it upon himself to make him a better one. O’Neill’s wife Juliana (Caroline Dhavernas) is brought into the mix when Hanseen insists that she comes to a church service with his family. Hanssen says early on in the film that the Russians lost the Cold War because of their godlessness, and if anything, he perpetrates a life devoted to conservative values. Hanssen complains about Planned Parenthood and gay people, and he doesn’t care much for women in pantsuits saying, "The world doesn't need any more Hillary Clintons."
It’s what’s under the surface that brings about one of the best performances of Chris Cooper as Robert Hanssen. His portrayal of the Russian spy is hiding, at the very least, two layers of duplicity. His prickly outward demeanour is one of a career intelligence analyst, who’s seen the system maleform through the years. He complains about the the lack of inter-agency cooperation between the FBI and CIA, while also admitting it’s useless to change anything in the system without “playing the game.” Also, Hanssen is, in fact, a sexual deviant who videotapes his wife and him have sex and sends the tapes to friends. Cooper, in the role, has a simmering anger to him at times, prone to outbursts and never one for smiles. It’s unsettling, knowing his secrets, especially when he tries to befriend O’Neill and his wife. Hanssen reaches for Juliana’s hand during grace at dinner, provoking a grimace of discomfort from her and a glimpse of satisfaction from him. It’s in the little moments when Cooper shines, and even when he gets more expressive scenes — like a gun standoff with Phillippe or a tear-soaked confessional with a priest — he carries the performance with ever-continuing layers of deception throughout.
Phillippe doesn’t quite rise to the levels of Cooper, but he plays the role of boy scout on the razor’s edge pretty well. Linney as a leading agent in the Hanssen investigation plays the part of the no-nonsense operative with the kind of determination you’d expect from an analyst tired of being undermined by someone like Hanssen. We should also not let the fact that a blonde woman in a pantsuit helped bring down Hanssen, keeping in mind his thoughts on Hillary Clinton. Dennis Haysbert and Gary Cole fill out the cast with small but potent roles. Caroline Dhavernas as Juliana could’ve had a thankless role as O’Neill’s wife, but she manages to be a pivotal player in O’Neill’s motivations and the decision he makes at the end of the movie. A fairly standard trope of the spy juggling work and his personal life is intertwined into the movie quite well — Breach is all about duplicity on all fronts, who we lie to, and the price paid for keeping those secrets for so long.
The real Eric O'Neill was a consultant on Breach. He worked with the producers and Billy Ray to make the film as accurate as possible. Of course, the film makes the mistake of delving into too grand of situations — Hanssen drunkenly accusing O’Neill of lying at gunpoint is a stretch for sure. But, all in all, it feels like the facts were portrayed as is; yes, the real Hanssen was obsessed with Catherine Zeta Jones, and the film builds an entire, bizarre scene around this.
A decade later, Breach and the real story behind it feels just as incredible but not entirely unbelievable. Breach proves that process of law and order, with in-depth investigations and case-building, is vital to the protection of the nation. Robert Hanssen went undetected for 22 years as a Russian spy and it was thanks to the intelligence community that he was finally taken down — there’s always hope that the right people, at the right time, can reveal the duplicitous and dangerous nature of the treasonous. Lessons we should take with us in 2017.