February 20, 2007

MOVIES: Breach (Billy Ray, 2007)

Based on the true story of Robert Hansson, the FBI agent who spied for the Soviets and Russians for more than 20 years, doing more damage than any other spy in US history.

Hansson is played here by Chris Cooper, and the story of his downfall is told through the eyes of Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe), an agent-in-training who was assigned to Hansson's office, told at first only that Hansson was a sexual deviant whose fondness for exchanging videotapes with other amateur pornographers could be an embarassment to the Agency. O'Neill can't find any evidence that Hansson's proclivities are having any effect at all on his work, and he even comes to admire Hansson. That's undrestandable; Hansson is a devoted family man, a devout Catholic who attends Mass daily, and (so far as O'Neill knows at this point) a dedicated professional, determined to convince his superiors that the Agency's computer systems are in desperate need of overhaul and security enhancements.

But eventually O'Neill's handler (Laura Linney) fills him in on the truth -- Hansson is a traitor, and the FBI is trying to build a strong enough case against him to stand up in court -- and O'Neill finds himself struggling to reconcile his fondness for the man with his duty, and with his own desire to become a full-fledged agent.

Cooper gives one of his best performances here. Hansson's motives for betraying his country are complicated, but they're all clear in Cooper's portrayal. Hansson's arrogance, his wounded pride at the way his superiors have ignored his ideas, his religious obsession -- they all feed into his betrayal.

Over the last several years, Ryan Phillippe has quietly been making the transformation from pretty-boy to serious actor, and Breach marks his best work yet. O'Neill's ambition, his reluctance to believe the worst about Hansson, his fear of being caught, the struggle of maintaining a marriage when you have to lie about so much of your work -- Phillippe gets it all just right.

The supporting cast provides equally fine work, not only from Linney, but from Gary Cole and Dennis Haysbert as other FBI agents, Kathleen Quinlan as Hansson's wife, Caroline Dhavernas as O'Neill's wife, and -- in a perfectly played single scene -- Bruce Davison as O'Neill's father.

Cooper's performance here is absolutely award-worthy, and it will be interesting to see if it's remembered at the end of the year; I fear that it will be overlooked, buried in the attention being paid to the annual year-end flood of Big Oscar-Bait Movies.

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