In what the Department of Justice has called "possibly the worst intelligence disaster in U.S. history," FBI agent Robert Phillip Hanssen was arrested on February 18, 2001 for selling secrets to the Russians over a fifteen-year period, for which he was paid over $1.4 million in cash and diamonds. Working undercover and under the noses of the greatest surveillance bureau in the world, Hanssen was somehow able to maintain his dual identity.
A filmed adaptation of Hanssen's story, 'Breach' focuses on junior FBI agent Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe), who would be the agent eventually responsible for catching Hanssen (Chris Cooper). Ironically, Hanssen is only two months from retirement when O'Neill's cat-and-mouse with the spy begins. Also adding a layer of unexpected sleaziness are FBI reports that Hanssen was allegedly fond of videotaping his wife in compromising positions and sending the tapes to other people, as well as posting intimate details about their relationship on the internet. For a devout family man and church-goer like O'Neill, the case proves particularly troubling, as he learns that Hanssen, too, is a dedicated Catholic, leaving the young agent initially unable to reconcile his faith with the facts.
Despite the story's foregone conclusion (we know from the headlines going in that Hanssen will eventually be caught), 'Breach' is less concerned with the outcome of the case than with the journey of conflicting conscience that O'Neill must undergo to capture his prey. Everything is not as expected. His relationship with Hanssen, initially antagonistic, eventually develops a complicated, even bizarre mentor-student dynamic. We, and O'Neill, are never sure just how much Hanssen is in on O'Neill's own escalating double-life. Just as Hanssen must play multiple roles to maintain his "shadow self," so too must O'Neill. They eventually become, if not friends, then certainly respected peers -- going to church together, bonding over common interests and (with O'Neill feigning ignorance of Hanssen's alleged "perversions") developing a kinship as husbands and fathers.
It is this constant moral tug of war, and its attendant ideological parallels and contrasts, that elevates 'Breach' far above a routine spy thriller. The performances are absolutely critical to making it work. Oscar-winner Cooper is expert at masking menace behind the banality of the Everyman. His flinty stare reveals absolutely nothing, yet absolutely everything. We, like O'Neill, never quite know what to make of Hanssen, with his mild-mannered actions completely betraying the barely-contained evil we know must be simmering underneath the surface.
Phillippe is truly the surprise of this film, though. We expected such a complex performance from an actor of Cooper's stature, but to be blunt, Phillippe has always seemed unable to fully craft adult, three-dimensional characters -- at least in dramatic films like 'Flags of Our Fathers.' But here, Phillippe effectively seems just as in-over-his-head as O'Neill, as if the character's dawning realization that he's going to have to step up his game to catch his culprit mirrors the actor's own intimidation at having to match wits (and talents) with Cooper. By film's end, Phillippe seems to have matured as much as O'Neill.
'Breach' also holds up quite well in terms of suspense. The script by Adam Mazer and William Rotko is airtight. Yes, as some critics pointed out, there are plenty of factual inaccuracies, and the story plays rather fast-and-loose with the specifics of FBI operating procedures, but like 'The Silence of the Lambs,' 'Breach' is a thriller first and foremost, not an FBI handbook. Director Billy Ray ('Shattered Glass,' 'Flightplan') rightly keeps his focus right where it ought to be -- telling a coherent, believable story and giving us three-dimensional characters to care about. He's also displays an ever-more-sure hand at staging suspense without sacrificing logic -- 'Breach's last 30-odd minutes are as tightly-wound and perfectly paced as any classic spy thriller, from 'Marathon Man' to 'All the President's Men' to 'Three Days of the Condor.'
Ultimately, 'Breach' is the kind of slow-burn, well-plotted adult drama which has more common with '70s cinema, than it does today's modern Jason Bourne and James Bond franchises, which rely as much on action as political intrigue. This is likely why 'Breach' failed to click with mainstream audiences earlier this year, earning less box office in its entire run than 'Casino Royale' did in its opening weekend. But while it may not share much with most modern box office blockbusters, 'Breach' is a rich and rewarding film, one that hopefully will find a long-lasting afterlife on video. Don't let it slip you by.
'Breach is as cold and steely-eyed as the villain it portays. Bathed in deep blues and silvers, the cinematography by Oscar-winner Tak Fujimoto ('The Silence of the Lambs'), 'Breach' is certainly not an eye-popping, rainbow-hued presentation, but given its intended stylistic effect, it looks great.
This 1.85:1 widescreen transfer is presented in 1080p/VC-1 video. As is expected for a new release, the source is impeccable, with no print issues or other blemishes. Blacks are rock solid, and though contrast appears intentionally muted, depth holds up well. Colors again are desaturated to the point where the film often veers on the monochromatic, but hues remain stable, with little noise and fleshtones about as accurate as is possible. Detail is nice and supple, if slightly softer than brighter, less muted recent HD DVD releases. My only major complaint is a slight edgy look to the transfers, with halos visible around hard-edges. (It's worth noting that the HD DVD side of this DVD combo release is certainly preferable to the flipside -- the standard-def version looks even more noticeably processed with edge enhancement, and detail is significantly weaker.)
Universal provides another English Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround track (at 1.5mbps) for 'Breach.' And while the film's sound design is not particularly dynamic, with limited surround effects, the overall level of atmosphere remains high.
Dialogue is certainly the star here, and is expertly reproduced. Volume levels are always spot on, so balance problems don't interfere. The rears, however, are only sporadically engaged, with genuine discrete effects are reserved only for a few suspense moments and some nice integration of the low-tones of Mychael Danna's moody score. Imaging is tight, though, and the accuracy of directed sounds is nicely done. Low bass is tight and above par for a talky picture such as this, though again the soundtrack is not particularly dynamic in terms of sonic highs and lows.
'Breach' hits HD DVD day-and-date with the standard-def disc release, and this edition ports over all of the standard-def supplements (as well as a few high-def exclusives -- see below). Unfortunately, Universal still hasn't gotten the hang of reformatting their standard extras for high-def -- nothing here looks better than 480p/i/MPEG-2 video, and the menus again are standard, static Universal boilerplate.
Content-wise, however, this is a pretty solid batch of material. The screen-specific audio commentary with director Billy Ray and the real Eric O'Neill is definitely the highlight. Ray leads the track with O'Neill largely fielding questions, but that's certainly okay, as the director has clearly done his homework. Differences between the real-life case and the movie's embellishments are clearly noted, and O'Neill's observations on the differences between the performances and the people they played are particularly appreciated. Sometimes, it is even chilling, especially Chris Cooper's all-too-spot-on portrayal of Robert Hanssen. The best extra on this disc.
Next is a collection of 12 Deleted Scenes, running about 18 minutes. It's all character development between O'Neill and Hanssen, and all from the film's first two acts. Some bits are throwaway, but there are a couple of substantial scenes that could have easily stayed in the movie. Ray and O'Neill again provide optional commentary for the scenes.
By comparison, the two making-of featurettes are lacking. Both appear culled from the same promotional on-set interviews. "Breaching the Truth" (11 minutes) is a completely typical extended commercial laced with film clips, while "Anatomy of a Character" (7 min.) is all about Cooper as Hanssen, and he gives the driest interview of the bunch.
Rounding out the set is a 19-minute excerpt from 'Dateline NBC,' entitled "The Mole." It originally aired in March of 2001, and this is a streamlined version of a longer piece featuring interviews with the real Hanssen. Though short, this is still good enough that one wishes Universal had produced a much longer, full-length doc on the events behind the film.
Sadly, Universal again continues to eschew any theatrical trailers on their HD DVD releases.
'Breach' is a smart, well-written and well-acted spy thriller. While it's a bit short on action (which is likely what caused its poor box office showing), don't let that stop you from checking out this film. This is an excellent HD DVD release from Universal, boasting a strong transfer and soundtrack and plenty of supplemental features. Definitely worth a rent, and any serious spy film-fan will want to add this to their collection.