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In Breach, director Billy Rays thematic follow-up to 2003s Shattered Glass, works within its predecessors docudrama confines but steadily ratchets it up to a full-blown thriller well worth its dramatic salt. Despite the ending being splashed across the headlines and its case study still being referenced till this day as possibly the worst intelligence disaster in US history, the premise of a secrets being sold to foreign regimes continues to maintain an air of unreality that remains unnerving. This is especially so in a post-9/11 world that constantly expounds on the careful handling of counter-intelligence and sensitive information being touchstones of security in this brave new world.
Ray adheres to a disconcertingly effective cut and dry interpretation of true-life FBI man turned agent provocateur, Robert Hanssens (Chris Cooper) world. Unfolding underneath the cloudy grays of the countrys capital, the film works through the drones that walk the hallways of dull furnishings and tightly wound bureaucrats protecting their turf at every turn, remanding their responsibilities for somebody else to follow through on while feeding their own cynicisms through inadvertence. Its mindful of not romanticising the shady, cloak-and-dagger world of spies or the circumventive thrill seeking of slipping one past the establishment but forms itself into a careful and observant record of Hanssens final months leading up to his arrest, all through the eyes of Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe), a surveillance specialist for the FBI.
With Breach, Ray now deals with deception on a much larger canvas. The stakes are set much higher in the psychological poker game between the men right in the heart of the scandal. Ambitious and competent, ONeill is assigned to Hanssen as an assistant at a new division of the Bureau with the true intent to shadow and detail his bosss every activity. They fabricate and withhold information from one another to conceal their true interests. But as the lies start to pile up and a burgeoning respect for each other hinders their defences, their responsibilities and intentions become hazier.
The conjecture used for its artistic merit was principally constructed from numerous biographical accounts of Hanssen and those close to him as well as ONeills own input about his experience. The impetus of Hanssens actions as well as his perspective on his countrys intelligence failure are only eluded to and insinuated upon. The film does not inform and detail as a mere procedural but like every good film, puts its characters in the forefront instead of its plot. Thats not to say that the story isnt up to par as there is not one wasted scene or lull in the tight script. Ray establishes a tone of continued discovery by using Phillippes character as a narrative linchpin in crafting an utterly fascinating portrayal of Hanssen through Chris Coopers superlative turn as the countrys most dangerous man.
Theres just so much to be said for Coopers performance here that could very well be his most complex and perplexingly nuanced role of his career. He pulls each and every one of his scenes off with a consummate understanding of a man racked with paranoia and personal sin despite the strong waves of pharisaical religiosity that he exudes, which ONeill wisely uses to his advantage. This is one of the strongest performances of the year.
In a film teeming with politics unseen ever since the terrorist attacks in September 2001, mere months after Hanssens arrest, theres a point being made by its director in his lingering shots of the hanging portraits of George W. Bush and John Ashcroft that parallels Hanssens growing disillusionment with his governments complacency and lax disregard for the importance of intelligence in the administrations hierarchy.