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Well-Acted Breach Wears Religion on Its Sleeve

  • Christian Hamaker Contributing Writer
  • 2007 17 Feb
Well-Acted <i>Breach</i> Wears Religion on Its Sleeve

DVD Release Date:  June 12, 2007
Theatrical Release Date:  February 16, 2007
Rating:  PG-13 (for violence, sexual content and language)
Genre:  Drama, Thriller
Running Time:  110 min.
Director:  Billy Ray
Actors:  Chris Cooper, Ryan Phillippe, Laura Linney, Gary Cole, Dennis Haysbert, Kathleen Quinlan, Bruce Davison

“Do you pray the rosary every day?” asks FBI Agent Robert Hanssen of his new assistant, Eric O’Neill. “You should.”

In director Billy Ray’s (Shattered Glass) Breach, faith and sexual deviancy are two ingredients that, along with simmering resentment, create a volatile cocktail. The true story of the fall of FBI spy Robert Hanssen (beautifully portrayed by Chris Cooper) shows how a man who tricked the U.S. government for decades was brought down by the very people he held in contempt, and how a young bureau employee who shared Hanssen’s Catholic faith led to the man’s undoing.

Ryan Phillippe stars as Eric O’Neill, plucked from a low-profile security position to assist FBI agent Hanssen in his role as head of “information assurance,” where Hanssen guards classified documents. Trouble is, he’s a sexual deviant who needs to be watched closely.

O’Neill soon finds out there’s much more to the assignment. Hanssen isn’t protecting the documents at all. Instead, he’s the target of a years-long investigation to root out a mole within the FBI—someone who has provided America’s enemies with top-secret data and who has been responsible for exposing the identities of undercover U.S. officials.

Hanssen’s motivation for betraying America is never quite clear, which is part of what makes his story so interesting. He’s frustrated by the lack of cooperation between different U.S. intelligence agencies—an eerie foreshadowing of what would underlie the events of September 11, 2001, a date that falls just months after Hanssen’s arrest. He also despises the ineffectiveness of the agents who worked with him to root out the FBI mole, not realizing for years that Hanssen himself was the betrayer. And he resents the higher pay and respect bestowed upon other intelligence officials whom he considers his intellectual inferiors.

But Hanssen’s conscience is unsettled, if not outright troubled, and how his sense of guilt feeds into his religious affinity is one of the film’s unspoken but most intriguing questions. Does he seek God because he desires to have his conscience cleansed? Is he merely using religion as a cover—something to keep others from sensing his criminal behavior? Does he strive to match the ideals of his spoken faith, even as he continually falls far short of those ideals in practice? In sum, is his faith genuine? “It doesn’t matter to me … the judgments of other men,” he says at one point. “I know what I’ve done.” (Hanssen and his wife subscribed to Opus Dei, but the film does not highlight any contrasts between Opus Dei and mainstream Catholicism.)

With O’Neill, the motivation is more transparent. His interest in religion is a means to an end—to earn Hanssen’s trust so as to glean information that might be used to bring down Hanssen. O’Neill’s faith is much less outwardly devout, but as his secretive job puts strains on his marriage, and as Hanssen insinuates himself into O’Neill’s husband-wife relationship, the aspiring young agent latches on to their shared Catholic framework to distract Hanssen and keep him from discovering what O’Neill is truly up to.

Despite much discussion of Catholic practice and belief in Breach, faith is shown as little more than an outward set of behaviors—church attendance, crucifixes hanging on the wall, Virgin Mary figurines. Still, part of what makes Breach so watchable is the conflict within Hanssen, who appears genuinely concerned with O’Neill’s spiritual life, but is perhaps more interested in using his knowledge to expose O’Neill’s ulterior motives.

Less compelling are the digs at Kenneth Starr, and images of former Attorney General John Ashcroft and President George W. Bush, which are sometimes designed to elicit laughter. But these moments are brief and take little away from this strong, suspenseful drama.

Phillippe gives a very nice performance here with much more screen time than in last year’s Flags of Our Fathers, where he had little chance to shine. Cooper continues a long string of excellent performances (Adaptation and October Sky are among the best), displaying the weariness of someone trying to outwit his countrymen, but tiring of the game. Laura Linney, outstanding in The Squid and the Whale and as a faith-challenged lawyer in The Exorcism of Emily Rose, has less to do here, but is nevertheless effective as O’Neill’s superior.

Breach ultimately concludes that the reason behind Hanssen’s betrayal is beside the point. “You are who you are,” one character sums up. “The ‘why’ doesn’t mean a thing.” Although such a resolution might be perceived as a cop-out in other films, here it works well, leaving aside the mysteries of Hanssen’s motivation (resentment and financial gain are alluded to, but never deemed decisive) in favor of a predominantly behavioral study of a slippery operative.

“The Lord is known by his justice; the wicked are ensnared by the work of their hands” (Psalm 9:16), and “A man’s ways are in full view of the Lord, and he examines all his paths. The evil deeds of a wicked man ensnare him; the cords of his sin hold him fast” (Proverbs 5:21-22). In light of those truths, a final image of the captured Hanssen and his last line of dialogue are haunting.

Breach is an example of a strong studio film powered by high-caliber acting, open to differing interpretations. It’s a movie for older teens and adults to see and discuss—a cautionary tale about the perils of power and greed, and the deceitfulness of the human heart.

AUDIENCE:  Older teens and up


  • Language:  Lord’s name taken in vain; some profanity; negative references to Planned Parenthood, lesbianism, gay marriage, and the way women dress; anti-gay slur; a reference to rough sex and Hanssen’s predilection for strippers.
  • Sex/Nudity:  A videotaped image of Hanssen making love to his wife; discussion of Internet pornography; a crude reference to masturbation; a husband and wife sit in bed and talk.
  • Violence:  The FBI is described as a “gun culture,” and the agents engage in target practice; two point-blank shootings; a brief discussion over whether someone has “earned” the death penalty; image of a dead man lying in a pool of his own blood.
  • Smoking/Drinking:  Some drinking, although the characters state that alcohol consumption is forbidden by FBI agents.