From its top-notch cast led by Chris Cooper to its graceful direction from Billy Ray, the tense, terse Breach does major justice to this true story of justice.
In February 2001, a highly regarded, long-serving FBI agent was arrested for selling U.S. secrets to Russia over a period of 15 years; Breach tells his story as well as that of the man who spied on him. Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper), the now infamous treasonist, led a Jekyll-and-Hide lifestyle, which the FBI would use to ultimately build up a case and arrest him. But first they needed a young, hungry, sly and innocent-seeming up-and-comer to gain Hanssen's trust enough to just barely cause him to let his guard down. That's where Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe) comes in. O'Neill is just what his boss (Laura Linney) had in mind, and she quickly clues him in: This is the "worst breach in U.S. history," with Hanssen being responsible for countless American deaths and dollars, and Hanssen's a sexual deviant. But after spending long days by the agent's side, O'Neill sees nothing but a misunderstood man and wants to call off the mission. However, after some more inside info from his boss and manifestations from Hanssen himself, O'Neill is onto the cause, even if it means putting his life at risk.
Playing real-life people is much different from playing fictional characters because real people are extremely complexneither exclusively good nor, as in this case, exclusively bad. That's why veteran actor Cooper's performance is so riveting and his acting so widely lauded: He lends so much humanity to a character he could've portrayed as a true villain. In fact, his ability to humanize each of his charactersnot only because he looks like an Everymanis what makes him one of the best, most credible actors of today. Whereas we're supposed to object to Cooper from the moment he opens his mouth, Phillippe is not supposed to be disliked. It's hard not to the way he almost struts his attitude, but the Crash star and former Mr. Reese Witherspoon turns in one of his better performances. The real O'Neill might not have looked like a male model, but he must've been deeply conflicted and consumed by his mission and Phillippe conveys that much. However, he still seems unable to hit some high notes. And Linney (Exorcism of Emily Rose), in a limited role, adds sheer class and professionalism, as is her career trademark.
Writer/director Billy Ray will seemingly accept writing gigs for just about any genre (Hart's War, Flightplan, Suspect Zero), but he apparently has his heart set on nonfiction when it comes to directing. His rookie effort, the ripped-from-the-headlines Shattered Glass, evoked superb fly-on-the-wall tension, not unlike Breach. Which isn't to compare either movie to a documentary, but both are executed rather organically and it speaks volumes about a director's talent when he or she can pinpoint and articulate the intrigue of a true story, as opposed to contriving a gimmick (i.e., camerawork or special effects) from a fictitious story to arouse viewers' interest. Ray clearly has no interest in tricking viewers at all, and yet Breach remains engrossing throughout. It's the ultimate testament to the success of his no-frills filmmaking. It can be said that neither of the main characters is explored deeply enough, but (a) that's what books are for and (b) such is the constraint of the medium of (taut) film.
Hollywood.com rated this film 3 stars.