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Breach (2007)

Universal Studios Home Entertainment
DVD Released: 6/12/2007

All Ratings out of
Video: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 6/17/2007

It's not unusual for filmmakers tackle the same themes over and over again in their films. Writer/director Billy Ray clearly has a thing for Washington, D.C. power players who are keeping a dark secret. In these films, he explores not only the individual, but those around them. He did this first in the phenomenal Shattered Glass, and now he’s tackling an even more sensational case in Breach.

Breach tells the true story of FBI agent Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper), a seemingly normal man who was revealed to be one of the biggest traitors in U.S. history. As the film opens, FBI employee Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillipe), who has been performing surveillance duty, is given a new detail. He’s assigned to work with Hanssen, who has worked in Soviet intelligence for years, in a new department (which Hanssen will head). O’Neill’s assignment is to observe all of Hanssen’s behaviors, because the man is suspected of delving into pornography. O’Neill is wary of this post, but it could lead to a promotion. He immediately regrets the move, as Hanssen proves to be a brash, icy, and demanding boss. But, as O’Neill gets to know Hanssen, he’s surprised by what he finds. The man is extremely religious and moral, and has a palpable disdain for anything which is in poor taste. O’Neill can’t believe that this man is a pornographer. It’s at this point that O’Neill’s superior (Laura Linney) reveals the truth behind Eric’s assignment. Knowing that he’s now watching a spy, O’Neill allows himself to be pulled into Hanssen’s world. This is a dangerous move, but it’s essentially to gain the trust of this man and bring him down.

As with Shattered Glass, Billy Ray is tackling a real-life story of a political insider who lies to his peers, becomes drunk on power, and pushes things too far. But, that’s where the similarities between the two films end. Shattered Glass’ Stephen Glass was a egomaniacal, but scared kid who so wanted to be accepted that he falsified a series of magazine articles. Robert Hanssen is a man in his fifties; a world-weary FBI agent who has spent a bulk of his career hiding a deadly secret. The stakes here are much higher, and the main character is much better at the game of deception.

Another difference is the likeability of the central figure. Stephen Glass may have made poor choices, but he was still a fairly positive and likeable character. From the get-go, we are made to dislike Hanssen and his immediate harsh treatment of O’Neill causes the audience to turn on this man. And the more we learn about him, the less we like him. The movie does very little to make Hanssen a positive figure. Even when he’s making sense, or spouting his moral beliefs, he still comes across as a creep.

Despite this seemingly negative point, Ray has created a film which is engrossing and difficult to turn away from. Case in point, the film opens with a real-life clip from Attorney General John Ashcroft announcing the arrest of Hanssen. So, from the beginning, we know that Hanssen will be captured. But, the script is structured so that we want to know what happened and how it happened. Instead of the typical spy vs. spy which we’ve gotten before, this film delves into the bureaucracy of the government and the evidence needed to prosecute this man. The elaborate rouse perpetrated by O’Neill and his superiors seems difficult to believe and the fact that it did indeed happen just a few years ago makes the film very interesting.

The story is only bolstered by the acting in the movie. Chris Cooper, who’s been threatening in other roles, is simply creepy here. Even when Hanssen is being human, he still comes across as loathsome. Cooper portrays a man who is clearly sitting on a lot of emotions, yet, he’s always very restrained. This restraint results in a man who isn’t happy and subtlely bullies those around him. Ryan Phillipe, who is often thought of as Reese Witherspoon’s ex instead of an actor, goes toe-to-toe with Cooper and holds his own here. O’Neill may be an ever more complicated character, as his loyalties are split between his job, his boss, and his wife, and he’s constantly being pulled in many directions at once. Phillipe must keep things in check, but his explosive scenes show a great deal of raw emotion. The movie also features a sensational supporting cast, including Gary Cole, Kathleen Quinlan, Dennis Haysbert, and Bruce Davison.

I’m not a huge fan of docudramas or espionage movies, but in the hands of Billy Ray, Breach delivers. My one complaint about the film is that the pacing gets a bit sluggish in the third act as the story becomes somewhat repetitive. Otherwise, we have a gripping thriller which uncovers one of the most notorious villains of the last decade. The D.C. locations and the great cast make this one a winner.

Breach sells its secrets to DVD courtesy of Universal Studio Home Entertainment. The film has come to DVD in two separate versions, one full-frame and the other widescreen. For the purposes of this review, only the widescreen version was viewed. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image looks very good, as the picture is sharp and clear. There is virtually no grain here and no defects from the source material. Ray has given the film a very cold look, and the greys and blacks look good here, and flesh tones look natural. I noted no ringing artifacts or haloes around the characters. The DVD has a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track. This track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The stereo effects, most notably those of the D.C. streets, are very good. This is a nice use of surround sound in some of the crowd scenes, and a few subwoofer hits in the finale.

The Breach DVD contains some very nice extras. We start with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from writer/director Billy Ray and the real Eric O’Neill. This is a great chat, as Ray talks about the making of the film, while O’Neill speaks to the authenticity of the movie. This gives the viewer a very in-depth look at the film. The DVD contains 8 DELETED SCENES, which run about 12 minutes, and can be viewed with an optional commentary by Ray and editor Jeffery Ford. All of these scenes are interesting, but it’s quite clear why they were cut. There are also 2 ALTERNATE SCENES, which run about 6 minutes, and also have optional commentary. These make subtle changes from the scenes in the finished film. “Breaching the Truth” (11 minutes) is a very nice, concise making-of featurette which tells us most of what we would want to know about the movie. It has comments from the cast and crew, as well as from the real Eric and Juliana O’Neill. There is some nice behind-the-scenes footage here. Hanssen and Cooper’s performance are explored in “Anatomy of a Character” (7 minutes) (Which is sponsored by Volkswagen...What?) “The Mole” (19 minutes) is taken from a March, 2001 episode of Dateline NBC and explores the real Robert Hanssen. It should be a law that any movie based on a true story must contain a documentary of some sort on the real events.

Review Copyright 2007 by Mike Long