Breach may be one of the best paranoid thrillers of the 1970s. It just happened to have come out in theaters four months ago. Like few films made since the Me Decade, this dark drama — centering on the weeks leading up to the 2001 capture of FBI turncoat Robert Hanssen — distills the essence of that distinctly Nixon/Ford/Carter-era narrative genre. In simple, stark detail, you’ll find the real-life tension of All the President’s Men. The government intrigue of Three Days of the Condor. The claustrophobia of The Conversation. As co-writer/director Billy Ray (who made 2003’s similarly suspenseful Shattered Glass) explains in his commentary, the film ”owes its inspiration to the movies of the ’70s, and that extends to every aspect of its construction.” He’s not talking jive, man.
Hanssen was the most notorious spy in American history. A 25-year FBI stalwart who sold secrets to the Soviets for sport and a devout Catholic who hung a cross over the office computer where he indulged his sexual fantasies, he represents a dense, mysterious character, and the perfect one around which to craft a contemporary spin on the spy fable. It’s also a whopping challenge to render him human and empathetic on the screen. Which makes Chris Cooper’s understated take on the pious, tortured, loving, loyal, perverted traitor all the more impressive. ”Cooper does four or five things a day that are just Did you see that?! kind of moments, where the acting is so connected and so subtle,” Ray remarks. ”It’s never big or operatic. He just nails the truthfulness of a moment.”
The star’s performance — alongside confident and mature work by Ryan Phillippe as Eric O’Neill, the young FBI agent who helped bring Hanssen down — is key to making this two-hour homage feel fresh. Still, some may be dissatisfied that the filmmakers never attempt to explain Hanssen’s transgressions. Why’d he do it? The extras — including the usual assortment of deleted scenes, documentaries, and an above-par commentary track featuring Ray and the real O’Neill — dance around the issue. ”The why doesn’t mean a thing,” Ray says, echoing a line from the film. Well, amen. After all, the best of the ’70s conspiracy flicks remained compelling even after declining to clarify why, say, Nixon let Watergate spin out of control.
Here’s a more timely conspiracy theory for you: What if Universal never wanted you to see Breach? For some reason, the studio dumped this unusually smart, well-made, and well-acted (please, Academy, remember Cooper when the time comes) film with little fanfare in the doldrums of February, where it died quickly. Sure, in most cases, the why doesn’t mean a thing. But on this point an explanation would be nice. A-