Saturday, November 17, 2007


RUNTIME: 110 min.

Aldrich Ames, the CIA agent who drove into office in a Jaguar and about whom field agent Robert Baer very nicely commented that he probably was the only one driving in a car worth more than a year’s salary, is referenced quite often. In particular by Hanssen portrayed brilliantly by Chris Cooper (I’ll come back to that). And there’s a reason to that. Ames and Hanssen share some sort of a twin-ly relationship in that both moles dug not holes but trenches through their respective organizations; they both were essentially transatlantic versions of Kim Philby. Some of the information they passed along to the GRU and KGB (Victor Cherakshin was the master agent who recruited both of them) were same, and they were bound to be. In fact, the KGB agents (Boris Yuzhin, Sergei Motorin and Valery Martynov) shown to be compromised were already done in by Ames before. But, I believe, that is where the similarity between the two personalities end. Ames comes across as an average greedy turncoat who held no allegiance but to money. Hanssen was something else, a tragic character, much in the mould of a Michael Corleone or a Charles Foster Kane, probably less “tough” on the inside. But he was as much a victim, if I may call it so, of hubris as much as the other two. Probably the lack of success, career-wise, made him a more chronic patient of that disease all “tough’ characters possess in copious amounts. He wasn’t remotely the disillusioned kind like Dmitri Polyakov, not in the least. He was the bad guy, if one may call so, the sort of whom you’ll hold in awe and mystery; the kind you don’t look down upon. At least I did.
Breach, directed by Billy Ray, isn’t the typical cloak and dagger espionage film one usually associates with Hollywood. In fact, it rarely uses dagger or its likes to generate thrills. This is a supreme motion picture, a film that brings home the world of espionage like no other in recent memory. It isn’t car chases in some far of land, but the bureaucratic corridors that keep you on the edge of the seat, and in the company of some beautifully etched people. Most works on the Hanssen case, especially on print, haven’t dealt at all with the guy who had the front row tickets to the action – Eric O’ Neill (Ryan Phillippe). The film tells his story, with breathtaking grace (I guess I’ve never used that word ever for an espionage film) in the process acquainting us with not one, but two people, poles apart. The only similarity they seem to share is that they’re both Catholic. One is absolutely uninteresting (Neill) and the other a repository of layers (Hanssen). Billy Ray, in his earlier film Shattered Glass, wonderfully portrayed the entire farce that journalist Stephen Glass created at The New Republic in the process contrasting us with the relationship between two characters – Glass and editor Chuck Lane. Though that effort was undermined a little by Hayden Christensen’s above-average turn, his sophomore directorial venture doesn’t have anything to stop it in its wheels. In that film we had the boss (editor) unravel the mask of his junior colleague; here we’ve a junior carry out the proceedings.
Here we’ve a person who attends mass every Sunday, who is devoutly catholic (Hanssen was a member of Opus Dei) on one hand. On the other hand, the same person secretly makes kinky videotapes of his sexual intercourses with his wife and posts them on the internet. Here’s a man who is betraying his organization and nation, yet what he demands from his associates is their absolute trustworthiness. The Bureau and the Mole by David A. Vise focused heavily on the kinkiness of Hanssen, sketching elaborately on his sexual deviances. The film does cater to that element but doesn’t focus on it. I believe it is sympathetic towards Hanssen, and I most agree with that feeling.
Chris Cooper, giving probably the first Academy-worthy performance of this year, achieves a character portrayal that is at par with some of the most memorable turns ever. I hear from a lot of interviews he went to great depths, taking help from real-life Neill (he was advisor on this film extensively) and in his words perfecting the accent and the mannerisms. Some performances seem to get lost amongst all the drive for perfection, losing sight of the character. This isn’t remotely that, what Cooper achieves here is monumental. He is Hanssen and his very presence in the vicinity of Neill brings a strange mixture of fear in us, and a growing sense of tragedy on the whole. This performance isn’t a gimmick of any sort; this is acting as an art form. Breach is a complex film that lucidly narrates its complexity with a great deal of subtlety. And quite a huge share of that should be owed to Cooper who conveys a lot, sometimes hell of a lot, through his mannerisms, through his speech.
I’ve heard a lot of Neill in numerous interviews; Phillippe does a dead-on impersonation of him with his accent. And he too doesn’t lose sight of the character, always managing to bring home the conflict raging within Neill. I appreciate the kind of choices Phillippe is making; when I first saw him in Cruel Intentions he seemed to be another teenager. But his choices seem to be inspired – Crash, Gosford Park, Flags of our Fathers and now this. Laura Linney’s character in most films would have been a by-the-numbers one. Here she holds her own identity and stamps her mark in a story primarily involving two characters.
Much of the film transpires through conversations and corridors. Yet, it is considerably nerve-wracking. The narrative tension is heightened for the stakes are high; the dramatic conflicts more so. Billy Ray, amazingly, doesn’t go for the immediate edits required for dramatic tension that one has come to expect from espionage films. He instead, lets the characters grow and the tensions engulf us as the various conflicts take place. The movie isn’t sprinting a 100-metre dash; rather it is deliberate in the process rising high and mighty above the boundaries of the genre. The offices are morose places and this is where Billy Ray is supplemented no end by Director of Photography Tak Fujimoto. It is noticeable in Fujimoto’s films (Philadelphia, The Silence of the Lambs, The Sixth Sense, Signs) – the photographic sense that comes across as a unique blend of attractive coloring and the kind of monochrome shades the real world offers us. They aren’t overtly colorful, yet they bring out a sense of subtle flashiness to otherwise morose surroundings (offices and cells in The Silence of the Lambs, courtroom in Philadelphia). And with dull offices the setting, his photography is just what the film needs. They never are overbearing, they’re subtle acting supplementary to the narrative.
And I believe Billy Ray is the kind of filmmaker who would thrive on such assistance. One sequence in particular is a fine example of craftsmanship. As Hanssen makes his last drop at Ellis, he walks out amidst the morning serenity. The brilliant use of hand held camera, coupled with the outstanding usage of score and the cinematography makes us experience the moment, the morning and the feeling someone is prying. If I wasn’t already looking forward to Ray’s work post Shattered Glass, I most readily am now.
I might be slightly biased for this is a film right up my alley, and even more so that this is a decent approximation of my kind of cinema and my vision of it (the subtleness is deadly apparent on every front and I relished it). But don’t let that keep you from visiting this beautiful picture, this is an astonishing achievement considering the subject and how easy it is to go haywire. Through the books I’ve read on Hanssen, incidentally both by authors of a similar name (Spy by David Wise and The Bureau and the Mole), I only managed to know the person. Spy is a commanding read, The Bureau and the Mole mere sensational writing the likes of which are generated in abundance after an important event has occurred. But the film achieved what only cinema at its peak can achieve, it let me meet Hanssen. I could imagine about him before sitting on my armchair; now I believe I might have understood him. For that alone Breach stands as one of the finest espionage dramas ever.

For an interview featuring both Eric O’Neill and Billy Ray, kindly visit -

Now check this out.


Anonymous said...

For the one, I liked cooper's character a lot. potrayal of his characters through various aspects like down to earth living, his likings & scenes was quiet gripping.
definitely, a thumb's up movie.


abby said...

I liked this movie mostly because of the acting, characters and the story. Everything was pretty good so it kept the movie interesting through to the end. Given the story, I can easily imagine how it could have been very boring. Credit, I feel, must go to the director, the choice of actors and their performances.So guys here you are with the link to this movie. Click here to see