Perhaps I've watched too much "Alias" and "24," because it turns out I expect espionage/government agency stories to be fast-paced, entertaining, and suspenseful to the point of biting off my fingertips. If one goes into Breach expecting these qualities, one will not find them. The real-life story on which the film is based is intriguing, but the film itself is not. If the intention was to make a great dramatic thriller, then something went wrong. But as a way to tell the story of a real-life FBI take-down, it's more titillating than your average Dateline special.
Ryan Phillippe plays baby-faced Eric O'Neill, the FBI agent hopeful assigned to the case of veteran operative and alleged mole Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper). Hanssen is suspected of providing information to the Soviets, costing the government financial drain and leading to the deaths of at least a few American agents, yet the FBI has never been able to gain enough evidence to take him down. The actual things Hanssen did or how he got away with his crimes for years are not the focus of the film, and I was left thinking that maybe they should have been, so read more
The story is really about O'Neill gaining Hanssen's trust and learning how to play this man who has played the Bureau's best agents for years. Yet while O'Neill struggles to gain Hanssen's trust, Hanssen needles his way into O'Neill's personal life, endangering O'Neill's mission and causing tension in his marriage. Thus the two men dance a back-and-forth power struggle. I actually feel sorry for the real Eric O'Neill, because in Phillippe's portrayal, he's glum-faced and one-dimensional with a bulbous bottom lip that prevents him from speaking properly. When Phillippe as O'Neill whines to his superior, "What if he's smarter than me?," I had to snort. I mean, "what if?" — it isn't exactly a stretch.
Phillippe pales in comparison to Cooper, and perhaps that is the point. O'Neill is supposed to seem less capable in every way, and he succeeds. He is, essentially, the window through which we observe Hanssen, and Cooper's surly, bitter performance dominates every time he's on the screen. It was rumored that Hanssen viewed the FBI as an organization of imbeciles without enough sense to listen to his ideas, and his disdain for the bureau seems to have been a driving force behind his actions. The film, however, never spells out his motivations, wisely leaving the viewer to speculate.
The final glimpse of Hanssen, too, is well-played. Throughout the movie, Hanssen is a deeply religious man, judging himself as though through God's eyes while being both professionally and personally corrupt. In the end, O'Neill's triumph is silenced by the Hanssen's inward downfall.
And of course, we know the ending from the beginning; in fact, the film kicks off with actual footage of Ashcroft announcing Hanssen's resignation. Since knowing this takes away any sort of surprise ending, the getting-there should be the gripping part. Maybe I expected too much from this serious, slow-moving film, but aside from a few great moments, the grip is loose.