In a year dominated by great female performances (think; Laura Linney in Jindabyne, Marion Cottillard in La Vie En Rose, Imelda Staunton in Harry Potter, Maggie Gyllenhaal in Sherrybaby) it is somewhat of a relief to finally see a male performance that could be worthy of an Oscar nod come February. Chris Cooper’s turn as real-life FBI agent Robert Hanssen in Breach could well be one of the year’s defining male performances, although this muted, intelligent thriller could slip under many people’s raders.
Everyone has their favourite niche genres, whether it’s biopics of doomed musicians or high school comedies. One of my own personal favourite genres would be the political thriller; the recent remake of The Manchurian Candidate being a case in point. I had been an admirer of Bill Ray’s Shattered Glass ever since I saw it a few years ago and when I heard he was making another film based in reality, this time concentrating on the downfall of FBI agent Robert Hanssen, my interest was piqued. The cast list, when I saw it, only furthered my enthusiasm for this film; the excellent Chris Cooper, the aforementioned Linney plus a bit part for The West Wing’s nasty vice-president Gary Cole. There’s always a risk of being disappointed when you look forward to something, but Breach handles it’s subject with decorum and an unshowiness that betrays it’s sensational plotline. It’s smart, well-acted and emotionally involving; a welcome change from the candy-coloured assualt of the summer film season.
In 2001, FBI hopeful Eric O’ Neill was assigned to work alongside Hanssen in order to find out his secrets. At first, O’ Neill is only told that Hanssen is a sexual pervert and that his mission is to investigate any deviant activities in order to save the FBI from any potential embarrassment. As the weeks progress, O’ Neill (a surprisingly good portrayal by Ryan Phillipe) becomes fond of Hanssen and demands to know why he is supposed to be investigating him. Reluctantly, his supervisor, Agent Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney) explains the true reason; Hanssen has been working as a spy for Russia for years, divulging vital pieces of U.S. intelligence and authorising the killing of other agents. He is a traitor and a liar.
Cooper, who has made a living playing hardened men (American Beauty, The Bourne Supremacy, Jarhead) is the unbreakable core of the film. Hanssen is obviously an extremely complex man; a devout Christian who has no qualms about betraying his fellow country. At times he seems without morals, but then a small touching gesture he makes towards O’ Neill will flip your perception of him uncomfortably. We are clearly not supposed to empathise with him, he is cruel and perverted, a heartless liar, but Cooper gives such a lifelike potrait it is difficult not to feel some glimmer of sympathy. None of the other characters know what to make of him either. “His grandchildren do love him,” admits Agent Burroughs reluctantly. It isn’t a showy performance by any means, but you can hardly keep your eyes off him. He exudes quiet menance from our very first encounter with him and O’ Neill, understandably, is terrified. He is the scariest onscreen Boss since Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, except Anna Wintour never sold secrets to the Russians. At least as far as I’m aware…
The Bourne Ultimataum, which I also enjoyed, deals with roughly the same topics as Breach; CIA, espionage, secrets. But it’s hard to think of two such dissaparate films. While the Bourne films are a frenzy of jump-cuts and wobbly handheld cameras tracking impressive car-chases, Breach is a much quieter affair. The bulk of the action takes place in offices or apartments, there is no final showdown, no jolting cameras or frentic electronic scores. It is character based, dialogue based; and even the more chilling for it. The tension builds up slowly throughout the entire film, beautifully realised in muted greys and blues, until the inevitable end rolls into place with a saddening clunk. Breach is not an uplifting film, but nor is it a downer; it simply understands that people are complicated in what they do, in what they say and what they think.
“It doesn't really matter; the judgement of other men... I know what I've done.” - Robert Hanssen, Breach.