I wasn’t interested in seeing Breach, the new based-on-real-events movie about the capture of FBI mole Robert Hanssen. The previews looked conventional, and the star, Ryan Phillippe, has never been a favorite of mine. Then I saw that it had been written (with two others) and directed by Billy Ray, and my attitude changed immediately. Ray is no big-name auteur, but he is responsible for Shattered Glass, a meticulously crafted gem of docudrama and a real favorite of mine.
Ray’s scrupulous attention to detail impresses me each time I see Glass, which tells the story of a scandal at The New Republic magazine, the revelation that one of the writers had been passing off outrageous fiction as fact. Surely the earlier film’s thoughtful, thought-provoking examination of why we believe lies and how they go unnoticed would translate well to a story of deception and betrayal at the FBI. But Breach failed to live up to the promise of Shattered Glass. It didn’t give me as much to think about, and it didn’t capture my imagination.
Why? I puzzled over that question all the way home from the theater. After all, the lies are exponentially more dangerous and the stakes that much higher in Breach. Ryan Phillippe plays Eric O’Neill, an ambitious fledgling FBI man assigned to clerk for—and spy on—counterintelligence agent Robert Hanssen. O’Neill’s handler tells him the FBI fears Hanssen’s semipublic risqué behavior will embarrass the bureau, but O’Neill suspects he isn’t being told everything. He is correct: at its outset, Breach plays real footage of Attorney General John Ashcroft announcing Hanssen’s arrest. Hanssen had been selling highly classified information to the Soviets and then the Russians for more than two decades.
What is the embarrassment of a few magazine editors next to the untold damage Hanssen did to national security? One could argue that the gravity of that alone should make Breach more compelling than Shattered Glass, but to my considerable disappointment, Breach left me shrugging my shoulders.
I thought back to one of the few scenes that did resonate with me. O’Neill has just learned that he has been assigned to spy on Hanssen not to sniff out “perversity” but to gather evidence of treason. The young man, who had come to respect Hanssen, is shocked and demoralized. He’s never read anyone this badly before, he moans. His no-nonsense handler, Agent Burroughs (the always wonderful Laura Linney), points out that Hanssen fooled many people, she among them, with far more experience than him; at one point, the FBI actually assigned Hanssen to lead efforts to unearth the mole in their midst. With surprising candor, Burroughs confesses that she sometimes feels Hanssen has negated her entire career by undoing all her work to keep the country safe.
It’s a tremendously powerful scene, partly because Linney can act circles around the only-adequate Phillippe, but also, more significantly, because her character has a much greater stake in Hanssen’s conviction that O’Neill does. Hanssen’s spying tarnishes her; his success is her failure, and his capture will allow her to begin to restore her own honor and that of the bureau to which she has devoted her life. O’Neill isn’t even an agent yet; for him it simply isn’t that personal.
And that, I think, is the fundamental flaw of Breach. O’Neill’s story (he is a real person) is an interesting footnote but ultimately not much more than that because he isn’t implicated in the FBI’s failure to stop the traitor sooner. The crisis in Shattered Glass isn’t anywhere near as weighty, but all the players are intimately responsible for the journalistic disaster at their magazine. Exposing the fabulist means exposing their own professional failures and personal weaknesses, but only by doing that can they reaffirm their ethical principles.
If Breach had granted us a window into Hanssen’s behavior, O’Neill’s irrelevance might not have mattered, but Breach insists on keeping the spy’s motives inscrutable. One character (clearly expressing Ray’s own opinion) bluntly and repeatedly states that the “why” of the treason doesn’t matter. Breach toys with different theories (wounded pride at being overlooked is probably the most convincing), but in the end, Hanssen is unknowable. Cooper’s performance is interesting but opaque.
That approach is philosophically valid, but it means that the movie’s two central characters are a relative lightweight (O’Neill) and a complete enigma (Hanssen). What’s the drama in that? To make matters worse, Breach also spins a B plot out of O’Neill’s marital problems (his wife, Juliana, doesn’t appreciate being kept in the dark about his activities), and that only exasperated me more.
I just didn’t care. I didn’t care about Juliana’s failure to understand the meaning of the word classified. I didn’t care about O’Neill’s amateurish attempts to deceive a practiced deceiver. I might have cared about the weird contradiction between Hanssen’s devout Catholicism and his traitorous actions, but Breach, always detached and reportorial, never delves deeper into that mystery.
Breach takes a terribly dramatic event and chains us to the perspective of a character who doesn’t have an intriguing moral dilemma or a compelling backstory or (frankly) a strong actor to bring him to life. There might be an interesting story buried in O’Neill’s short FBI career, but it’s not cinematic. Next time Ray decides to make a secrets-and-lies docudrama, he needs to find a stronger protagonist and a more vivid window.