On February 20, 2001, John Ashcroft, who was then Attorney General of the United States, announced the arrest of Robert Philip Hanssen, a senior-ranking Special Agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The charge against the 25-year FBI veteran: espionage against the United States of America.
Indeed, Robert Hanssen turned out to be the worst spy in American history. For over 20 years, beginning in 1979 and ending with his arrest in 2001, Hanssen provided top secret information to Russian intelligence agencies. It’s estimated that he passed along over 6,000 highly classified documents to the Russians; blew the cover of as many as 50 undercover agents working overseas for American intelligence services; and was certainly responsible for ensuring the KGB’s discovery and summary execution of two Russian double agents who were working for the CIA. He was able to do these things for 22 years without being detected because of his position as one of the most trusted and capable counter-intelligence experts in the FBI.
In 2007, Universal Pictures and Sidney Kimmel Entertainment (SKE) released Breach, a combination spy thriller/historical drama that recounts with great skill the events leading up to Robert Hanssen’s arrest in February 2001. Breach, starring Chris Cooper, Ryan Phillippe, Laura Linney, and Caroline Dhavernas, and directed by Billy Ray, is a very good film that quite competently tells the story of how one young FBI surveillance specialist with a burning ambition to become a Special Agent, but with almost no investigative experience, becomes the key figure in finally bringing Robert Hanssen to justice.
Breach opens on a quiet Sunday morning in a Washington, DC apartment. Eric O’Neill (played by Ryan Phillippe), a surveillance specialist working for the FBI, and his wife Juliana (played by Caroline Dhavernas) are sharing their dreams of the day when Eric will finally become an FBI Special Agent. The O’Neills’ reverie is suddenly broken by a telephone call. O’Neill is ordered to report to the FBI’s Washington field office. He’s being sent out on a temporary duty assignment (TDY), the details of which he will learn when he reports for duty.
When O’Neill gets to the office, he discovers from his temporary boss, Special Agent Kate Burroughs (played by Laura Linney), the nature of his new assignment. He’s being detailed as the assistant to Robert Hanssen, a very senior Special Agent, who’s being set up in a new office ostensibly to oversee the modernization of the FBI’s worldwide computer and information technology systems. Burroughs tells O’Neill that Hanssen is actually being investigated as a sexual deviant; he has allegedly been posting pornography on the Internet, and has been accused of sexually harassing some of his female subordinates.
O’Neill’s job is simply to keep an eye on Hanssen; observe his behavior, glean as much information from his computer files and paperwork as he can, and report back to Burroughs.
O’Neill is given no choice in the matter; he reluctantly accepts his orders and reports to his new work location the following morning.
His initial encounter with Robert Hanssen (played by Chris Cooper) is anything but cordial. As soon as Hanssen walks into the office, he demonstrates a surly, embittered attitude toward his new subordinate. “Tell me five things about yourself,” he growls at O’Neill, “and make one of ’em a lie.” O’Neill is left stammering while he fishes for a response.
Over the next few weeks, as Hanssen and O’Neill’s working relationship gradually improves, O’Neill constantly observes Hanssen and tries to discover any information that will assist Agent Burroughs in her investigation. He is puzzled by the fact that there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of sexual deviance… anywhere. Not on Hanssen’s computer, nor in his paperwork, nor in anything he has written or said. In fact, Hanssen appears to be a deeply devout practicing Roman Catholic who attends Mass every day and prays the rosary in his office.
O’Neill now seriously doubts he’s being told the truth about why Hanssen is being investigated. He confronts Special Agent Burroughs and tells her plainly that he doesn’t think Hanssen is a sexual deviant. Burroughs is left with no choice but to tell O’Neill the real reason for the FBI’s investigation: Hanssen is suspected of spying for the Russians; he’s getting ready to flee the country; and the FBI wants to catch him red-handed making a “drop” of classified documents to his Russian handlers.
The rest of Breach tells the story of how Eric O’Neill, now fully “read in” to the facts of the case, becomes the key figure in making sure Hanssen makes that final “drop” of classified documents – in full view of FBI surveillance teams and special agents waiting to arrest him…
When Breach first came out on DVD in June 2007, I added to my movie library with great anticipation. After viewing it for the first time, I didn’t think it quite lived up to its billing as “the best film of the year so far;” still, it did turn out to be very good in almost every respect.
Chris Cooper, Ryan Phillippe, Laura Linney, and Caroline Dhavernas all give completely splendid performances in their respective roles as Robert Hanssen, Eric O’Neill, Kate Burroughs, and Juliana O’Neill. I thought Cooper and Dhavernas were particularly good, each delivering wonderfully nuanced performances that provided believability and depth to their characters. Phillippe and Linney’s performances were also very good, but their characters seemed to have more of a stereotypical law enforcement officer “feel” to them.
Other less prominent roles were very capably handled by Dennis Haysbert (as Special Agent in Charge Dean Plesac); Kathleen Quinlan (as Bonnie Hanssen); and Gary Cole (as Special Agent Rich Garces.)
My only criticism of Breach – and it is a minor complaint – has to do with the film’s screenplay. It’s written by Adam Mazer, William Rotko, and director Billy Ray, and is based in part on extensive interviews with Eric O’Neill, who also served as one of the film’s technical advisors. The screenplay tells the Hanssen story in a pretty straightforward and easy to follow manner and appears to be reasonably faithful to actual events. But it lacks something… that last degree of palpable tension that puts the “thrill” into a first-class spy thriller…
There is one particularly disturbing aspect of the actual Robert Hanssen case that I thought was handled with great sensitivity and skill in Breach: the discovery of evidence that Hanssen was secretly video-taping himself having sex with his wife, and then selling the tapes to third parties. Director Billy Ray and his screen writers avoided any hint of salaciousness in presenting these facts to moviegoers, and should be commended for carefully safeguarding the dignity of the person who would be most hurt by these revelations.
MY VERDICT: Although Breach lacks the last possible ounce of palpable tension that makes for a first-rate spy thriller, it is an otherwise excellent film. It’s imbued with superb acting, and an easy to follow story line that accurately reflects the historical record of the Robert Hanssen case. Top-notch entertainment all the way. Highly recommended!
Personal viewing of Breach
Breach DVD cover notes
DVD Bonus Feature: “Breaching the Truth”
DVD Bonus Feature: “Anatomy of a Character”
DVD Bonus Feature: “The Mole” (Originally aired on Dateline, March 5, 2001)