"It doesn't really matter; the judgement of other men... I know what I've done."
It's always an interesting gamble to show the conclusion of a film at the very beginning. It has been used to great effect in the past in films like "Carlito's Way" and "Memento", posing the question, 'How did we get here' rather than waiting to see how events unfold. Given the formulaic approach to creating most modern films, the ending is rarely in doubt anyway, so it can make a lot of sense to adopt this approach as long as the story is intelligent enough. The ending of "Breach" is never really in doubt, but the manner in which it is played out is superb, in this smart, taut and exciting thriller.
When FBI surveillance trainee Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillipe) is reassigned to snoop on his new boss, a senior FBI Agent Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper) who is suspected of being a sexual deviant, he quickly suspects more is going on than he is being told about. Eric discovers that he is unwittingly embroiled in a mole hunt for the worst traitor in the history of the FBI, a man who has been turning over vital intelligence to the Soviet Union/Russia for more than 20 years. Despite initial hostility from his new boss/target, Agent Hanssen interestingly takes Eric on, acting as his mentor, recognising much of his own traits in his protégé, grimly coaching Eric in the realities of life in the FBI, while pressuring both Eric and his secular wife to become active in 'Opus Dei', an extreme Christian organisation.
Initially just another pretty face, Ryan Phillipe has developed a lot as an actor over the last few years, consistently choosing more challenging material like ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ & ‘Stoploss’. But while ‘Breach’ is effectively a two man show and Phillipe does an admirable job in his role, it is Chris Cooper who steals the show. Easily one of the best character actors working today, Cooper’s portrayal is equally terrifying and heartbreaking. A jaundiced and prejudiced creep who swaps secretly made sex tapes of him and his wife, yet a highly intelligent Agent and a devoted grandfather, Hanssen is a subtle beast. While you’ll never have to worry about liking him, thanks to Cooper’s extraordinary performance, you have to feel for him.
After making a very strong impression with his debut, 'Shattered Glass', director Billy Ray continues to shine providing another story of deception and flawed characters. Trust and betrayal are key theme in the film, with Agent Hanssen betraying his country and Eric effectively betraying his mentor and boss. In an interesting twist, while Eric's own handler lies to him and treats him like dirt, it is Agent Hanssen who is the first to value Eric. Offering him both spiritual & professional guidance, while encouraging him to be more of a free thinker and (sparingly) commending him for what he does well, Hanssen offers Eric what his handlers withhold. Ironically, it is Hanssen’s trust in Eric that ultimately brings him down, their almost paternal relationship making both betrayals all the more affecting.
While the conclusion might leave a few key questions unanswered, Breach is an excellent suspenseful thriller with an intelligent script, giving Chris Cooper one of the best roles of his career. While Hanssen justifiably rots away in jail, the real injustice is that both this excellent film and Chris Cooper’s award worthy performance have so been criminally overlooked.