Breach may be a cut above its boilerplate contemporaries or fellow genre entries, but it’s still an instantly forgettable film, save for the vague impression left lingering by co-lead Chris Cooper’s crafted performance. (I mean this literally: I was so disinterested while watching the film, at least whenever Cooper was off-camera, that by the conclusion of the end credits I had little memory of the images to which I’d just exposed, at least not beyond what I’d written down in my notes.) It plays out like a masculinized version of chick-flick The Devil Wears Prada, in which a spunky young “intern” (here a clerk) takes up a new position with a mean and grumpy boss. Both films are bothersome bunk, thoroughly unmemorable, though they do admittedly share commanding performances from their resident elders; the substantial difference between them is that while the biggest thing on the line in Devil… was who gets to keep the cute outfits from Paris, in Breach the characters are playing for the national security, the very future, of the United States. (In America, of course, girls like fashion magazines and boys like spy novels!)
John Ashcroft, in file footage, warns at the film’s outset that, “our free society is an international target in a dangerous world.” I’d decry this as disingenuous scaremongering were Breach not based on a true story; Chris Cooper plays actual superspy Robert Hanssen, known as the perpetrator of the largest security breach (ding!) in United States history; he served the Russians/Soviets for twenty-two years, until his arrest in pre-9/11 2001, and the extent of the damage he caused is still not entirely known. (It’s classified.) At the very least, three undercover field agents were assassinated, another fifty were outed, while tons, literally I’m sure, of confidential files, papers and plans were compromised. Wisely, the film never provides an easy answer for the why, although curiously it never provides a hard answer either; Cooper’s Hanssen is a complex and fascinating but no less mysterious figure than he was at the film’s start, despite some teasing as to a motive near the end. Was it the money? The pride? The necessity of proving there were holes in our security system? A vague combination of them all? Or none of the above? “The ‘why’ doesn’t mean a thing,” Cooper mutters enigmatically while in handcuffs.
Anytime Cooper is on the screen, he commands your attention and the film quickly becomes a lot stronger; it’s difficult to tell whether that’s solely a matter of his performance, or whether he was so good that he inspired director Billy Ray to do better, and the actors around him to try harder. In any event, he’s the film’s sole saving grace, though in fairness Billy Ray does have a handful of fine moments, such as when he establishes the passage of time not with declaratory titles but by the replacement of Clinton and Reno’s pictures on the walls of the FBI Headquarters’ with Bush’s and Ashcroft’s; otherwise, though, his direction is flat, stilted, by-the-books and, at best, satisfactory. If he had a crackerjack script and cast he might be able to get away with it, but unfortunately the cast, excepting Cooper of course, is irredeemably dull, from Ryan Phillippe as the “confident bordering on cocky” go-getter assigned to track Cooper (for a better version of this, try Ryan Gosling in Fracture), to Laura Linney as his boss and Caroline Dhavernas (yawn) as his wife. (Particularly irksome are the scenes dealing with Phillippe’s marital woes; while not necessarily excessive, they’re simply superfluous and pointless.) What’s more, the rote score is intrusively ostentatious and the dialogue often eye-rolling; consider this line: “It’s Kenneth Starr all over again, except I’m the one running around looking for the blue dress!” Or this crackling exchange: “Do you have a FISA warrant?” “Of course!” (Talk about your intelligence failureâ€”zing!)
The only interesting aspect of Breach, aside from Cooper’s stellar performance of soured understatement, is its mildly subversive subtext; in the film’s first few reels, Hanssen is, on his face, an upstanding family man informed by his devout Catholicism, a man who’s admirably devoted twenty-five years of his life to unheroic government service. Phillippe is impressed by this veneer, concluding that Hanssen’s a good guy, and he actually starts to like him, paralleling (half of) America’s relationship to George Bush, Jr. around November 2000. But soon Hanssen is revealed to be a sexual deviant and a traitor of unprecedented proportions, a destructive, hypocritical force intent mutilating our country from within…again, just like George Bush, Jr. and his Republican cohorts. Breach slyly suggests that the most ostensibly straight-shootin’ and patriotic Americans are actually the most dangerous and deadly force working against the country. See, McCarthyism.
Also running underneath Breach is a critique of ineffective bureaucracy within the intelligence community, a familiar rebuke in the bitter post-9/11 climate; more uncommon, tough, is how the filmmakers posit religion as not much more than a tool of manipulation. Phillippe wonders early on, in reference to Cooper, “what if he’s smarter than me?” (If?) But Phillippe is able, ultimately, to bring Cooper down, not by outsmarting him intellectually but by exploiting his spirituality, which despite his contradictions seems genuine; Phillippe bullshits Cooper, as regards his Catholicism, repeatedly getting out of trouble by pretending to pray or pretending to be worried about his Doubting Wifey. Hanssen, the sexual deviant and staunch Catholic (not very irreconcilable), takes the bait every time, suggesting, perhaps, that an overzealous religiosity will be the downfall of our country, as it was Hanssen’s. (Well, in the film anyway.) Serendipitously, on all accounts Hanssen’s the perfect allegorical representation for George W. Bush’s America and an obvious attraction for a contemporary filmmaker as interested in modern mendacity as is Ray, whose previous film, Shattered Glass, dealt with the Stephen Glass scandal.
But despite this intriguing underlying discourse, Breach‘s execution is American moviemaking not at its worst, but at its most frustratingly mediocre. Perhaps I’m being a bit hard on it, because of course it could’ve been far, far worse (put Halle Berry in Phillippe’s role), but at this point I’m fed up with lackluster movies, particularly star vehicles that waste a talented performer and a masterful performance by placing them within otherwise insipid films. It’s frustrating to realize that I spent two hours drenched in mediocrityâ€”that isn’t even funâ€”when I could’ve spent it catching up with the enshrined masterpieces awaiting me in my Netflix queue. Such is the punishment, I suppose, for looking for diamonds in heaps of coal. Perhaps Breach deserves to be seen by cinephiliac completists for Chris Cooper’s wonderful, award-nomination-worthy performance, which is so good that I feel a tad sorry for speaking ill of the film, but overall Breach is just a waste of time, most of all Cooper’s.