Breach: Billy Ray’s Follow Up to Shattered Glass

As a follow-up to Billy Ray’s feature debut “Shattered Glass,” “Breach” represents a logical step forward since both sagas deal with issues of trust and betrayal, except that the scope of the new film is wider and its goal more ambitious and political, going beyond the personal-professional domain of the 2003 film.

The story of one American spy who betrayed his country, “Breach” is a dramatic thriller, set inside the halls of the FBI, an organization that serves as gatekeeper of our most sensitive and volatile secrets. Hence, agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation are sworn not only to uphold the law, but also to serve the U.S. with the same honor they would serve their family.

The film, co-scripted by Ray, Adam Mazer (“Shelter from the Storm”) and William Rotko (“Freeze”), is inspired by true events. In 2001, renowned FBI operative Robert Hanssen was found guilty of treason against America. Over a period of two decades, Hanssen systematically and deliberately sold key intelligence to the former Soviet Union. (See details below).

“Breach” is considerably elevated by the complex, multi-nuanced performance from Oscar-winner Chris Cooper (“American Beauty,” “Adaptation”), who here gets to play a lead (of a change), or co-star, as Hanssen, one of the most notorious spies in American history. Cooper is supported by Ryan Phillippe (“Crash,” “Flags of Our Fathers”), who plays Eric O’Neill, the young agent-in-training handpicked by the FBI to draw Hanssen from his cover.

Ray is obviously attracted to stories about deception, and to characters that are split down the middle, individuals able to compartmentalize their existence, to live one kind of life on the outside, and a totally different kind of interior life. As noted, Ray had previously explored themes of deception and betrayal in the 2003 acclaimed expose, “Shattered Glass,” his treatment of the true story of journalist Stephen Glass’ rise and fall at the “New Republic” magazine

In this regard, “Breach” is another rise-and-fall story of a quintessential American citizen. Nonetheless, unlike “Shattered Glass,” which was narrowly focused and based on one dramatic situation in one locale, “Breach” pays equal attention to plot and characterization, excelling in detailing both areas.

The plot, particularly the premise and first reels, is rather intriguing. When O’Neill is promoted out of his low-level surveillance job into the FBI headquarters, his dream of becoming a full-fledged agent gets closer to reality. O’Neill is selected to work for renowned operative Hanssen within “information assurances,” a new division created to protect all classified FBI intelligence.

However, O’Neill’s enthusiasm quickly turns to anxiety, when he’s confronted with the true reason behind his unexpected promotion. Hanssen is the sole subject of a long-term, top-secret investigation. He’s a suspected mole who’s become extremely dangerous by the sheer global import of the information he protects.

The bureau asks O’Neill to use Hanssen’s growing trust of him to slowly draw the traitor out of deep cover. Engaged in a lethal game of spy-versus-spy, O’Neill finds himself fighting to bring down Hanssen before the treacherous double agent can destroy him, his family, and the nation they both swore to serve.

The story of “Breach” began just months before 9/11. On February 18, 2001, as a result of an ongoing investigation by a strong team of more than 500 men and women in the FBI, Special Agent Robert Hanssen was arrested and charged with committing espionage.

It was disclosed that, throughout his 25-year career with the Bureau, Hanssen spent the last 22 years of his service selling thousands of pages of valuable classified documents to Russia during the Cold Warand subsequently to the former Soviet Union. Hanssen’s betrayal included identification of KGB agents, who were spying on behalf of America, as well as the U.S. template for relocation of the president in the event of catastrophic attack.

A member of this federal agents team, Eric O’Neill, then 26, was a special surveillance operative who, only three months earlier, had been recruited by the team to work as an assistant to Hanssen. The operatives planted O’Neill, hoping he could gain Hanssen’s trust, thus further drawing the suspected mole out of cover. After the arrest, O’Neill was reassigned to his original position, and later left the Bureau to concentrate on his law studies.

In this smart, complex, and twisty thriller, Hanssen is depicted as a man of startling contradictions, who damaged to his country by successfully spying on behalf of the Soviets and Russians for decades before being caught.

Cooper, who over the years has specialized in playing complex roles, such as Colonel Frank Fitts in “American Beauty,” or the conflicted jockey Tom Smith in “Seabiscuit,” adds anther panel to his already distinguished chameleon career. As Robert Hanssen, he brings out the man’s darkness as well as humanity, stressing Hanssen’s many shades and layers, colors and contradictions. In Cooper’s interpretation, Hanssen is alternately punishing and seducing, a man full of oddness and quirkiness.

“Breach” reportedly enjoyed the support of the real-life Eric O’Neill, who served as consultant. Continuing to improve as a dramatic actor, Phillippe plays O’Neill as an ambitious and smart but frustrated man who, at times, is too cocky for his own good.

The entire ensemble cast is good. The always-reliable Laura Linney plays Special Agent Kate Burroughs, the FBI staffer and O’Neill’s liaison in Hanssen’s takedown, bringing to the role her customary honesty and authenticity. Dennis Haysbert plays Special Agent Dean Plesac, who teams with Burroughs to bring Hanssen down.

Kathleen Quinlan is Hanssen’s devoutly religious and trusting wife, Bonnie. Gary Cole plays Special Agent Rich Garces, and newcomer Caroline Dhavernas is Juliana, O’Neill’s strong-minded newly wedded wife.

The film’s production values are accomplished, accounting for a rather smooth and elegant picture. Behind the camera talent includes Tak Fujimoto (“Manchurian Candidate,” “Sixth Sense”), editor Jeffrey Ford (who also worked on “Shattered Glass”), production designer Wynn Thomas (“A Beautiful Mind”), and costume designer Luis M. Seqeira (“Breaking Point”).


Produced by Bobby Newmyer, Scott Straus, Scott Kroopf, Adam Kerims, Sidney Kimmel, and William Horberg.
Screenplay: Billy Ray, Adam Mazer, and William Rotko
Cinematography: Tak Fujimoto
Editor: Jeffrey Ford
Production Design: Wynn Thomas
Costume Designer: Luis M. Seqeira