Started by Gold Trumpet, August 24, 2007, 01:05:52 PM

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Gold Trumpet

Everything starts out well for Eric O'Neil. A candidate for promotion to agent in the FBI, he is working surveillance jobs. Suddenly pulled out, it seems his road to promotion may be lost. He is moved into the bureau to work a clerk job and follow the happenings of an FBI agent that is suspected of sexual indecency. Realizing that his job is low priority, he becomes disillusioned as his everyday duty becomes monotonous in following an FBI agent who by his actions seems to be the opposite of a sexual pervert.

Then the nature of his surveillance changes. He is told that this FBI agent is suspected of being a spy for the Russians for fifteen years and his job is to compile evidence against him so he can be prosecuted. At first it was a peep job, but then suddenly it becomes taking down the most damaging spy in U.S. history.

This is the set up to Breach, a true story of the take down of agent Robert Hanssen who was convicted in 2001 for spying and sentenced to life in prison. The fact that the film uses a young character who isn't even an FBI agent as the figure for the take down sounds like make believe. Silence of the Lambs had Clarice Starling take down Hannibal Lector when she was still in the academy. Real FBI agents balked at the likelihood of that ever happening. The story here is true and the portrait and details are deft in accuracy. Breach is an authentic character drama.

The credit goes to the writing and an amazing performance by Chris Cooper. The film understands that the set up is perfect for a generic suspense, but hones it in to focus on the characters to give them a context. Robert Hanssen is personified as an egomaniac who has been with the agency longer than most and knows all the pitfalls that younger agents are susceptible to making. A constant critic of his own agency, Hanssen shows surprising respect to the dedication of the Russians, but faults them for being a godless society. Then Hanssen takes his religious beliefs with him everywhere and faults others for lack of belief. The belief he has in his religious dedication and his intelligence surrounds him with confidence to ignore what he does. When asked Hanssen is asked why he was a traitor, he says if he didn't do what he did the agency wouldn't understand its own faults. This isn't a cop out that the film believes. It is a sign of Hanssen's disillusionment.

Chris Cooper plays Robert Hanssen. An actor of control and subtlety, he has carried a unique voice and presence in all his work. In minimal roles, he plays confidence and arrogance with ease. In deeper roles, he plays angst and sadness very well. Breach allows him to take on a role that combines everything of his personality and mesh it with the best of his talent. He also ditches his usual subtlety. Every part of his body is alive all the time. He combines his usual ethic of method acting with the outward focus on body movement that is popular in British theater. The result is an amazing performance of true inhabitance.

Ryan Phillippe plays the agent in training that traps Hanssen, Eric O'Neil. The best he can hope to do is play the role to sincerity. He barely accomplishes it. Billy Ray is the director and co-writer. Before making Breach, he made the underappreciated Shattered Glass. That film and this are accomplished efforts of control and an excellent focus. Breach isn't a film that redefines its genre, but is an accomplished work and the rare effort to see an actor at the top of his game.

The more acclaim Breach gets, the better. When it was released recently, the film went under the radar. In the United States it opened wide in February but had little press coverage and only was seen in larger cities. Trailers made the movie look like a thriller in the vein of the Bourne movies. Most critics liked it, but none truly raved about it. Then when more cities eventually got the film, it was already a month into release and on no one's radar. That is the position in which I am forced to review it. Breach will not win any awards nor appear on many top ten lists, but it should be noted.

The underwhelming response not only has to do with the little promotion, but also has to do with the subject. When Richard Ashcroft announced in 2001 that the FBI had arrested Robert Hanssen for spying, the press took notice but the public yawned. This only was the announcement of the greatest spy ever finally being captured but still, no one really cared. The reason is that Hanssen was a spy for the Russians in a time when the Cold War was no longer relevant. Hanssen did spy up until he was captured, but little understanding was given to what he really compromised in the time after the Cold War. The film says Russian agents working for the US were killed and information was also given away, but the effects it had were never cleared up.

Breach is not interested in the historical or political history. It does little to relate those aspects to the audience so they can really understand the importance. The film is a slim drama of the events that lead up to the arrest of Robert Hanssen. To be a character study is not a detriment, but to make Ryan Phillippe the protagonist who is the eyes for the audience into the world of Hanssen; that is. The work of Chris Cooper is so good and imaginative that the film slouches because it does not have acting talent all around. Laura Linney does quality work, but to cast Ryan Phillippe as Eric O'Neil is to keep Breach from being the complete character study. It just makes the film look appealing to the average moviegoer that may be scared off by a diligent drama and need the comfort of attractive young star.

There is also something unique to Breach. Because the film is focused on just the timeline of a real situation, there is an assumption that the movie is encompassed of details. Zodiac was unique to the crime investigation genre for the details it took interest in. Breach is similar for painting a vivid life of FBI life that likely has more legitimacy in reality than most films on the subject. Those details are also very dense in the film. Entire scenes revolve around the nature of office politics in headquarters. The approach is matter of fact, but it is also different than the portrait in Zodiac. That film focused on how the details of an investigation always loom over the investigators and haunt them. The film does not end with a character, but with the investigation itself. Breach is a film about the evolution of Robert Hanssen from confidence to destruction. It is a total character film.

The way the story unfolds explains how the film is a character portrait. Eric O'Neil is first told to follow Robert Hanssen under the preconception that he is a sexual deviant. Nothing more is told to him. The audience already knows he is a traitor, but they do not know if this side fact is also true. Then O'Neil begins to doubt the suspicion as it becomes evident that Hanssen leads a pristine life but ruffles feathers in headquarters because of his constant criticism of bureau policy. The idea is that his antagonism is the true reason for the investigation. When O'Neil is finally told the entire truth, the downward spiral begins for Hanssen. The investigation picks up speed and begins to apply more pressure and O'Neil is asked to compromise himself more to dig for harder facts against him. His suspicions begin to rise and he begins to doubt the faith of everyone around him. Certain situations become suspenseful in if Hanssen will find out the truth about his new clerk, but those small moments have little interest. The fascination is watching his gradual breakdown.

Chris Cooper takes on the role with force. Doing more than just playing arrogance at the beginning, he shuffles with his character in all manners. Hanssen doesn't give orders to O'Neil just at standstill, but does so while continuously pacing and moving. The motion that Cooper focuses on at the beginning becomes key. His character is untrustworthy of O'Neil and has little idea of what to make of him. As the film goes on, he begins to show ease with the situation and O'Neil. The point is that Cooper understands the nature of discomfort and anxiety in a performance. When Anthony Hopkins played Richard Nixon in Oliver Stone's 1995 of the same name, Hopkins gave life to Nixon by focusing on the mannerisms that suggested discomfort. The filmmakers did little to make Hopkins look like Nixon, but allowed him to give a detailed performance of gestures and physical ticks.  Cooper also has the natural gift of a performer of having this role suited to his available abilities. He has been frequently doing films that gave him similar roles, from The Bourne Identity to Syriana. He takes the crux of those roles and fleshes it out in Breach.

Billy Ray is the director. The writer of many screenplays dating back to the mid 90s, he made his debut a few years ago with Shattered Glass. That film was the biography of Stephen Glass, a writer for The New Republic who was writing non-fiction articles for the magazine but fabricating not only details, but entire scenarios that were the basis of his pieces. When he was discovered, he already had a lengthy career, so the scandal took down his career and also the prestige of the magazine, considered one of the best culture magazines in the United States. The protagonist in the film was Glass himself. Young and confident, he exhibited signs of delusion and a childlike dependence on feeling accepted. Breach is also about deception and continues Ray's quality work by not simplifying the deception and carrying a psychological perspective for insight into the character.

The place of Breach is unique. Quality, deft work, but it still will not make many top ten lists at the end of the year due to its simplicity. It deserves higher comment though because it perfectly illustrates a problem in cinema. Every ambitious filmmaker wants to redefine the nature of the one aspect unique to film: editing. Editing allows for film to have its poetic nature. It allows for film to develop as an art form.

As much as I believe in this, I also don't think quality filmmaking only makes for a good film. It can not hide a bad story and terrible acting. Sam Peckinpah, a major figure in film poetics, once said that 75% of filmmaking was getting good actors. Before he was a filmmaker, he was also the director of theater at the University of Southern California. He credited playwrights like Tennessee Williams as major influences and when he went into filmmaking, he felt the challenge to achieve the depths of filmmaking but do so in regards to the arts that surrounded film.

The popular idea of the times was that filmmakers like Nicholas Ray were important because their style was unique and had never been seen before. The stories Ray told in his films were silly and usually made worse because of horrendous acting, but followers said that cinema had to be unique. The term "cinematic" became the description of the style of Ray and others who showed little comprehension for anything else. Film was still a blossoming art in the 1950s and 60s and many commentators were bias against the relationship film had with other arts like theater to say that they shared similar components. This movement didn't last long. Film began to be accepted for the components it shared with all arts and the great filmmakers began to utilize all available ideas and tendencies to reflect that new situation.

If Breach deserves any greater comment, it should the reminder it serves of the relationship of film to other arts. The lineage of film began with theater and the indelible marks of theater are still served in Breach because it shows the importance of storytelling and acting. Because film has not yet evolved to an art form of poetry and pure visuals, the need for story and acting remains. The regard of quality filmmaking still begins with the certain essentials that have always existed in film. Not many American films focus on story and acting the way Breach does. The fact it is getting played at mainstream theaters is even rarer. Seeing these alive and well in a local cinema in Middle America is a good sign.

I Love a Magician

i saw this in the theater and thought it was great


well, just saw this tonight. seven years later I guess.
I thought it was great too, just a bit shy of really turning into a more heavy, memorable piece.
all credit goes to chris cooper, this is one of his finest works. I encourage everyone to give it a shot, if only because of him.


I remember being decidedly underwhelmed by this movie. It didn't do anything wrong, it just didn't do anything right enough to leave a lasting impression.
My house, my rules, my coffee



felt like Argo and Zero Dark 30 were kinda all aping this movie,.
"Tragedy is a close-up; comedy, a long shot."
- Buster Keaton