**** out of *****
Movies about spies and espionage have always been popular. From Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest,” to Bond, to Jason Bourne, there is something about cloak-and-dagger heroes that makes them continually appealing.
But ever since “The Bourne Identity,” spy films seem to have adopted a slightly different timbre. Whereas the James Bond movies were exhilarating and humorous adventures, modern-day spy movies are much more interested in the toll that espionage takes on a person.
Last month I reviewed Robert De Niro’s masterful and somber “The Good Shepherd,” which focused on a character whose entire life is tragically defined by his years spent at the CIA.
Now we have director Billy Ray’s “Breach,” which is based on the true story of Robert Hansson, the most notorious mole in United States history.
“Breach” isn’t nearly as solemn or downbeat as “The Good Shepherd,” but it’s a film that is preoccupied with questions about lies, loyalty and the price of America’s security, and so those desiring a thriller with action sequences aplenty should look elsewhere.
In fact, “Breach” is mostly about the relationship between two men – Hansson (Chris Cooper) and Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe).
O’Neill gradually works his way into Hansson’s trust (which is no easy task), and then uses this trust to help the FBI bring Hansson to justice.
The strengths of “Breach” derive mostly from its performances. Cooper is utterly convincing as Hansson, a man who defies conventional understanding and who exemplifies Shakespeare’s quote, “Into a thousand parts divide one man.”
Hansson, as O’Neill slowly discovers, is an intensely devout Catholic who is devoted to his country and his family. And yet Hansson is also a closet-pornographer and a traitor who has been selling secrets to the Russians for decades.
The skill of Cooper’s performance lies in his decision to play Hansson as someone who seems so steadfast in his patriotic and Christian convictions that the audience, like O’Neill, has a hard time believing he could be anything else than what he appears.
That we never get the why behind Hansson’s actions makes him as a character, and Cooper’s performance, all the more engaging and mysterious.
Phillippe also does good work as O’Neill, an up-and-comer in the FBI hoping to attain agent status. O’Neill is our guide through the film and Phillippe holds his own against Cooper.
But O’Neill also falls a bit flat as character. Where are the moments when he truly, in his heart, doubts himself and his ability to do his job? We get scenes where these issues are addressed, but they feel too pat and are not as emotionally complex as the material deserves.
Nevertheless, “Breach” is an intriguing film that continues the modern tradition of delving into the minds and lives of those who are paid to lie and betray and work in the shadows for a living.
Movie reviewer Jeff Schwartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.