A Tale of Two Spies

I like movies with small casts. It focuses the story and trims away waste that seems to creep in with larger canvases and more subplots. Last year’s The Good Shepherd was a spy film of this ilk. It was a large movie that had a lot to say, but seemed drowned by its bigness. Now we have a completely different type of espionage movie, Breach. While not perfect, there is enough done right in this more personal story to captivate the viewer and warrant a recommendation.

Up-and-coming FBI officer Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe) is given a tough, new assignment. Under the direction of his handler Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney), he is to partner with agent Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper) and report all his activities. The respected Hanssen is under suspicion of selling secrets to the Russians, and Burroughs wants to catch him red-handed so they have enough legal leverage to make him talk. Hanssen is no pushover, however, and instantly suspects O’Neill of being a plant.

Let me just say that Chris Cooper (Syriana) is amazing in this film. His Hanssen is a complex, twisted guy, who feigns piety while making pornographic videos of himself and his wife. His character is not likeable in any sense of the word, but you do feel pity for this man who claims to be a patriot, yet turns on his government and his country. Cooper is mean and pathetic and suspicious and manipulative and just electric on the screen.

Linney (Man of the Year) is solid in her minor role, but Breach is most hurt by Phillippe (Flags of Our Fathers), who is his typically bland, distant self. His “range” consists of a blank, brooding stare and monotone line delivery. Fortunately, he doesn’t derail the movie, but a superior actor could have lifted this material to a better place.

Director Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) does a good job at keeping the story moving, and gives us some good suspense set pieces (I liked the scene when Phillippe can’t remember which identical-looking pocket Cooper’s Palm Pilot goes into). There is also a nice theme running through the movie that all this obsession and stress ruins relationships and sterilizes personalities. When Phillipe asks the single Linney “Is it worth it?” She responds with “Ask me after we catch him.”

I also liked the supporting performances. Gary Cole (Talladega Nights) and Dennis Haysbert (TV’s 24) could play this FBI stuff in their sleep, but they are always fun to watch. Who really stands out is Caroline Dhavernas (Hollywoodland) who plays Phillippe’s wife, Juliana. She is very sympathetic and we feel for her, such as when she is tormented over dinner when Cooper shows up unannounced.

Breach isn’t great cinema, but it is compelling, and is capped by a wonderful Chris Cooper performance. That alone wouldn’t be enough to recommend this film, and it’s a combination of elements that make it worth seeing. Just don’t let Phillippe get to you, and you’ll be fine.