Saturday Matinee 2017 14: Breach (2007)

Weapons content of this film is minimal, but it’s a mostly true recounting of the last months of one of the most significant espionage cases in American histoOry. Robert Hanssen was an FBI Special Agent who, while working counterintelligence against the Soviet target, spied for the Soviets. For 22 years, before being caught (he’s now one of the guests of honor in Florence, Colorado’s Supermax, where he lives out his days in solitary confinement).

Hanssen’s motivations were a complex stew of greed and ego; his feelings were hurt that other agents were promoted ahead of him, and he got a sick thrill out of leading an inquiry into the possibility of a mole — an inquiry that would never find the mole, because it was him. 

Breach hit the screens without much impact at all.  Which is a pity, as it’s a tense, psychological drama with deep and, sometimes, puzzling characters. There’s a good bit of tension there, as the FBI closes in on its rogue agent, while at any time the rogue may learn the jig is up. He has two ways he can beat the FBI: by dropping out of espionage before they have enough admissible evidence to convict him, a concept he naturally understands perfectly, or by running a ratline he has asked his handlers to prepare for him.

Acting and Production

The actors here go the extra mile to sell their characters. One small example is the way that Chris Cooper as Hanssen is so intense that, walking down the corridor with a junior officer, Hanssen tends to walk him into the wall, quite unconsciously. In the excellent add-ons on the DVD (of which more below), Cooper’s immersion in this deep, strange, and mysterious character is discussed at some length, but on the screen it’s just a rocking performance, the best in the film, maybe a career best by the underrated actor.

Laura Linney is especially good in a key supporting role as an FBI supervisor so dedicated that she has sacrificed any hope of personal happiness in pursuit of her vital mission. But the way this is exposed is brilliant: when an agent working for her is having problems with his wife, she snaps: “I’d offer you some advice, but it wouldn’t be worth much. I don’t even have a cat.” She delivers the line with just the right blend of anger (she has a good reason to be angry at the agent, who has just screwed up) and bitterness, and the director and writer use it as a transitional moment. This is one example of the way the writer and director often choose to show the audience rather then tell them; to deliver important facts and enriching details in a sparse, telegraphic manner.

An even smaller FBI agent role goes to Dennis Haysbert (now the Allstate Insurance pitchman with the deep voice).

There are no surprises from Haysbert’s character, but the actor brings his trademark gravitas to the part and was a great addition to the film.

Unfortunately, two parts of the production of Breach are far below average. The first is the cinematography, which is extremely dark in 21st Century fashion. Every single one of the screenshots here had to be lightened, or you might not even see the actors or the objects. Some of them had to be lightened a second time (the shot of Linney, above) and some couldn’r really be saved with our image enhancement skills (Haysbert).

The second failure is a surprising one, because it’s one that in most films tends to be so good it’s invisible: make-up. Chris Cooper’s make-up as Hanssen is positively dreadful, and makes one wonder if the producer hired a bibulous mortician by accident. Ryan Phillippe as Eric O’Neill also suffers from obtrusive face paint.

In addition to these, there is one gratuitous, political jab that makes a jarring and incongruous entrance in unrelated dialogue, perhaps thrown in as a Hollywood virtue signal by the writers.

One thing the producers deserve thanks for is the excellent array of special features on the DVD. These include a number of scenes that were cut, primarily, we think, for pacing. By and large the scene cuts were appropriate but having them on the DVD was enriching.

The menu is visible to the left, and we watched each and every one of them and enjoyed them. The Dateline NBC news story, The Mole, is first class, as is Anatomy of a Character, describing how Chris Cooper brought a frankly repulsive, contradictory, and fatally flawed character to life.

Accuracy and Weapons

As you might expect for a true spy story, there is no gunplay, but that’s not the same thing as saying there are no guns. Hanssen has a seeming love-hate relationship with guns and with the FBI’s gun culture. Being able to hit a target is a skill that he’s contemptuous of, even as he warns a young agent that the FBI is a shooting culture and you will be judged by your shooting skill. Indeed, even senior executives are prone to impromptu shooting matches in the Hoover Building’s basement ranges, competing for small wagers or bragging rights.

A plot point turns on this.

Later, the scene is reprised, darkly, with Hanssen and another character.

Of course, Hanssen’s treachery has fatal consequences for Soviet traitors whose identity he learned, and sold back to the USSR. They are walked down a corridor to a meeting… with destiny.

And Hanssen was very prepared for things to go non-linear in his life. As a glimpse in his trunk indicates (AK, 2 G36s, MP5K, AR-15 (A1 style) w/203, and CAR-15 (under the AR):

As it happened, he did not reach for the guns when Bureau agents moved in with overwhelming force, catching him red-handed at a dead drop. Apart from the arsenal in his trunk, he was unarmed.

The accuracy of the tradecraft Hanssen uses to pass intelligence information, and that the Bureau uses to surveil him and build their case against him, is quite good, even though it is generally a background to the human story.

The bottom line

Breach is a powerful character study of a character who remains a disturbing enigma, almost 20 years after his exposure. It was a tough movie to make, especially to make while staying true to the source material — the History v Hollywood link below shows the departures made for the sake of drama, which were many but, mostly, small. But it also does something few movies so, shows the price that many people in the intel and CI world pay for their service.

At one point, Eric O’Neill asks his supervisor, played by Laura Linney, “Is it worth it? Being an agent?” and Linney makes a long, introspective, pause before answering, “Ask me when it’s over.”

There’s nothing in the film that says he asked her, or if so, what she said. But it’s a matter of record that the real Eric O’Neill ceased his pursuit of his dream of a Special Agent job, and resigned from the FBI… in his own way, he was a casualty of Hanssen’s treachery, also.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Amazon.com DVD page (version we reviewed):

https://www.amazon.com/Breach-Widescreen-Chris-Cooper/dp/B000OYAT3U/

Alternative, streaming version (seems overpriced):

https://www.amazon.com/Breach-Chris-Cooper/dp/B000RVP7YQ/

Alternative, 4-spy-movies-for-$5 (w/o the DVD extras, and maybe with worse compression):

https://www.amazon.com/Movie-Marathon-Conspiracy-Collection-Circuit/dp/B01CQOVHCW/

  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0401997/

  • IMFDB page:

http://www.imfdb.org/wiki/Breach

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page:

https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/breach/

  • Infogalactic  page:

https://infogalactic.com/info/Breach_(film)

  • History v. Hollywood page:

(It’s not on HvH but the same thing at a partner site):

http://www.chasingthefrog.com/reelfaces/breach.php

25 thoughts on “Saturday Matinee 2017 14: Breach (2007)

  1. Aesop

    Haven’t seen this one, but I don’t think Cooper has had his career-best performance yet.
    But he just keeps delivering in everything he’s cast in.

    He definitely helped to make The Kingdom into the only morally neutral and decently watchable flick about the ME from 9/11/01 until 13 Hours.

      1. LCPL Martinez USMC

        There’s a scene, i forget which part, where they’re in the basement, and Chris Cooper, points to a room and says, they’re looking at a CIA mole in there, and talks about gov’t waste, bureaucratic, inefficiency, etc. They were looking at Brian Kelley.

  2. Combat Adj

    In the last section, you hit publish with part of your template left in:

    “Movie is one simple buzzword. slight elaboration. What you’ll get from it. Smart ass closing.”

      1. James F.

        You have a CHECK next to Eric O’Neil, which is good, because IMDB says it’s O’Neill, with two Ls. Speaking of spelling, Hanssen is spelled right seven times, and wrong five times–at least.

        Also, IMDB says the quote is “Ask me when we’ve caught him.”

        1. Hognose Post author

          IMDB may be right about the quote; however, I returned the DVD so I can’t check the quote!
          There’s a story in that. The Blogbrother (who starts a new job today, good luck to him) borrowed the movie from the library in Big City, and loved it. He reminded me it was due, and asked if he could pick it up from my office… alas and alack, it was still in my DVD drive… in my computer bag… in the southern Hogney World office. $1/day overdue fees pour encourager le retour. I did pay his fees on RTB, and his fam’s library privileges are not at risk (and other Big City residents can watch Breach!)

          Thanks for catching my carelessness on Hanssen. Should be fixed now.

  3. idahobob

    Have it in my DVD library. Just watched it again last week. Excellent movie, almost a documentary.

    Bob

  4. Badger

    Interesting to see a review of this, thanks. Saw this back when first released & thought it pretty darned good (and agree with both Aesop’s assessment of Cooper & yours as to makeup). Some writings available (e.g., Cherkashin’s book Spy Master) discuss Hannsen flipping Soviet approach to tradecraft on its head (specifying drop schedules/sequences). This, to a certain extent, frustrates the handler as they like to know who they’re dealing with, but was indicative of Hannsen’s security concerns, being aware as he was of Soviet defector debriefings.

    1. Boat Guy

      Also saw it back then and was similarly impressed and didn’t catch that it was makeup making Cooper look so weird; just noted that he looked “off” – but what a PERFORMANCE! I agree he’s woefully underrated as an actor; his turn in Varsity Blues is another example. Laura Linney is another favorite to rarely seen.
      With Hanssen; every US Intel and CI agency has at least one example of a treasonous bastard who shoulda been publicly immolated.

  5. LFMayor

    Did he really have all that laying in the trunk of his car when they peeled him boss, or was that clip just Hollywood dumbassery? Guns equal bad, so naturally more guns equals more badder. Like Duncan Hines frosting.

  6. Eric

    Thank you for the review, I will have to see it now.

    I was impressed by Dennis Haysbert’s role in The Unit, and will always remember him for it, instead of his very popular Allstate commercial.

    1. Boat Guy

      The role he caught me with was in Heat; small part yes, small actor, decidedly not.

  7. Matt

    Haysbert must be enjoying being a pitchman; I’m sure it pays well. I agree, the Unit was his high water mark, role-wise. When I watch it now, I just FF through most of the wives’ storylines.

    Always cracks me up watching the insurance ad where the two hipsters are looking at the girl’s auto refund check from Allstate and the when guy starts to try to offer an argument, the tiny little girl says ‘Silence’ and Haysbert’s voice comes out.

    1. jim h

      I thought The Unit was great…..and then they tried to turn it into a whole army wives sob story. who cares about that crap?! this is supposed to be a series based on military action, not a bunch of dependapotamuses wasting their husband’s money, having stupid affairs, and trying to outdo their husbands for the shenanigans they get into. Haysbert played a good role there, and the episodes that he starred prominently in, he did quite well. one in particular stands out, where his father got a long awaited Silver Star for combat action in Korea, and the three storylines in that episode he weaved into a good hour of TV. anyhow, the show is great if you can fast forward through all of the wives and their trash.

      1. Hognose Post author

        Actually there was a national power surge as SOF veterans turned their TVs off midway through the first episode, when one guy’s flaky wife is having an affair with the CO. I’ve known some flaky wives who would do that but most guys who have the judgment to become SOF unit leaders avoid diving on that particular grenade. (The situation usually involves the CO calling in Sergeant Cuckold, and Cuck getting some time off to get his wife under control — either lashed down or cut loose, usually the latter. Or the problem recurs).

        The biggest hornball I ever knew in Group (who retired as a sergeant major and is still married to HIS wife) used to say, “I never slept with a married woman, if her husband was in Group.” And actually I’ve seen guys resist the deployed-wife come-on and the distraught-new-widow come-on, usually to be thanked for the resistance years later by the woman in question. Guys who were not inclined to resist were usually corrected on the spot by formal or informal NCO leadership.

        You knew the guys might drink all your booze, shoot all your For-When-THEY-Come ammo, leave your Mustang wrapped around a tree (the tree in front of the police station, full of vodka bottles), and leave your house looking like a Cossack frat spent an energetic spring break there, but they’d treat your woman like a kid sister and never forget to feed your dog. And when you were on rear D, it was payback time, but no pranks involved the wife/GF or the dog.

        1. jim h

          exactly. part of the code. but they took a show that (absent the women in it) was a good show, and tried to make it a family thing rather than a good military thriller, and that’s a no-go. I had trouble with the whole “wife and CO” angle too, and Haysbert’s wife was equally irritating.

          but the soldier characters portrayed by the actors were pretty well done, I thought. it’s hard to create the kind of dynamics of teamwork and interpersonal comfort in military culture in general and SOF in particular, on-screen. this show, when it did it, did it well. and when it wasn’t spot on, it was well played off.

  8. jim h

    yeah, I remember seeing this one when it came out in theaters. it was never one that was sold out, and I can’t remember what was playing opposite it that would’ve drawn more., but the folks who were in the theater for this movie seemed a step or two above a lot of the mouth breathers you see there normally.

    the biggest thing I remember about this movie was the blue filter. it seemed like they were trying to make it cold ALL. THE. TIME. the characters were all very well drawn out, and the acting was awesome. this was a movie for people who understood history and the real world, and it was done as such. I remember thinking that the cat and mouse stuff was expertly teased out, and while there was a definite bad guy, there really wasn’t a sense of good or right; the movie felt like it was heading to a pyrrhic victory, which is certainly the feeling you get when you are chasing down one of your own. great movie.

  9. RostislavDDD

    Hansen did a good deed to the world. When General Polyakov was shot, the world got rid of the adored Stalin sociopath. The general hated the country and the people around him “who betrayed Stalin’s memory” and was ready to work for the capitalists even for free.
    P.S. Penkovsky from the study of his personality, is much more shallow. An evil lackey who built a career in licking asses.

      1. RostislavDDD

        The main taste of your words is attached to the fact that the propaganda of neo-Stalinism in Russia is not paid by the authorities, but its enemies. I’m not talking about liberals. The liberal opposition is a screen that is necessary to steal the money of sponsors. And curators steal 3-4 times more recipients. Сhance for the conditional Kasparov to take power = 0, and everyone knows this. These petty thieves there are not wanted.
        Neo-Stalinism is paid for by more dangerous people. Who want to rule. And who need insane meat to send it to machineguns.

  10. archy

    As a rookie first desk, first office agent just out of the Quantico FBI Academy, PDH was assigned to the Indianapolis Field Office, neither the best nor worst of possible early career postings. He was not widely liked there, in part due to his tendency to flaunt his fundamental Opus Dei approach to his Roman Catholicism. Shortly thereafter he was reassigned by request for a 24-mtonth tour at the Gary, Indiana resident agency sub-office, not really considered a step up the career ladder; but he was a former Chicago PD C5 internal affairs Investigator and he and his wife Bonnie [sister of a FBI agent] were from nearby Chicago. In 1979, the Indianapolis office and one female Indy FO agent in particular became very involved in the investigation of the disappearance and murder of a young woman staffer of the Indiana senator who was chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence at the the time of the investigation into Operation Canton Song IV in which members of an Army Panama-based Military Intelligence unit had sold copies of their wiretaps of telephone negotiations between Manual Noriega with congressmen and their staffers including dollar amounts for their support of the Panama Canal treaty; one of the congressman so caught on tape was the Intel Committee Chairman.

    Did Hanssen have info from elsewhere about the Senator, certainly of FSV *family jewels* interest, or had he picked up on office chat about the case? The same senator had beent on the responsible for the approval of Carter appointee FBI Director William H. Webster, later appointed Director of Central Intelligence [CIA Director] by Ronald Reagan, making him the only person to have held both positions. If so, they may have just missed the bus: in late 1978 Hanssen was transferred the Bureau’s New York office to counterintelligence against the Soviet UN Mission there. At least by 1979 he was on the Soviet payroll.

    If Hanssen missed all that, he really let the gold and jewels slip through his fingers. If he didn’t, there’s a lot more to his story than is in the book or movie- but don’t hold your breath waiting for sequels.

    additional interesting reading: AFFIDAVIT IN SUPPORT OF CRIMINAL COMPLAINT, ARREST WARRANT AND SEARCH WARRANTS, ROBERT PHILIP HANSSEN: https://fas.org/irp/ops/ci/hanssen_affidavit.html

    A Review of the FBI’s Performance in Deterring, Detecting, andInvestigating the Espionage Activities of Robert Philip Hanssen: https://www.oig.justice.gov/special/0308/index.htm

    The grisly saga of Pixie Grismore: http://www.wnd.com/1998/11/3401/

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