“Tell me five things about yourself, four of them true,” senior FBI agent Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper) orders new clerk Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe) on his first day on the job. It’s an exchange that establishes the world of duplicity and doublespeak in which writer-director Billy Ray’s Breach is set, as well as confirming Cooper’s character as a grade-A hard-ass. But it also tells us to be wary of what we’re told and shown. Put simply, nothing’s what it seems. For starters, O’Neill isn’t the wet-behind-the-ears novice he seems, but an undercover operative assigned to monitor his employer for alleged sexual deviancy.
This, though, is the least of Hanssen’s crimes, as Eric discovers when the true nature of his mission – to expose his boss as a KGB spy – is finally revealed to him…
Based on a real-life scandal that rocked America in 2001, Ray’s film is a fascinating exploration of the methodical steps taken to coax Hanssen out into the open. But it’s also a study of betrayal, Cooper’s treason mirrored on a personal level by the way Phillippe gains his trust and courts his friendship even as he plots his downfall. Knowing the outcome isn’t the liability that one might expect, though it’s fair to say the labyrinthine workings of the Bureau don’t exert quite the same compulsion as Shattered Glass, Ray’s 2003 debut.
Yet in Cooper’s tightly wound, fanatically religious turncoat he has a subject every bit as fascinating as charlatan journalist Stephen Glass – a clenched, embittered enigma of a man, resentful of his superiors yet clearly desperate for respect, empathy and simple human contact. Phillippe’s nominal hero can’t help but take second billing to such a compelling antagonist, though the Crash star visibly grows in stature the more aware he becomes of his impossible position. As he tells wife Juliana (Caroline Dhavernas), “I’m living so many lives now I can’t keep them straight…”
Slow-burning and sombre, Breach won't be for everyone. But it's worth catching for Cooper's performance, while its fact-based tale of treachery will strike a chord in today's climate of suspicion.