the film snob

A cyberspace journal about my experiences as an NYU film school grad student, reviews of current and classic films, film and TV news, and the rants and raves of an admitted (and unapologetic) film snob.

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Esse Quam Videri -- To be, rather than to appear

Wednesday, June 20, 2007


I write film and TV reviews at Here are synopsis' and links to those reviews.

Walt Whitman, in the extraordinary “Song of Myself” said, “I am large. I contain multitudes.” The quote refers to the human propensity for self-contradiction, and the seemingly impossible ability of a person to not simply juggle, but fully integrate incongruous paradoxes within themselves.

Robert Hanssen is such a person. A 25 year FBI veteran with an impeccable service record, Hanssen (Chris Cooper) is “an FBI version of Willy Loman” — a loving husband, father of six children, and a devout Catholic who attends mass every day.

He is also a sexual deviant and a deeply embedded Russian spy.

Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe) is a young, confident FBI case officer with big ideas for how to improve the Bureau and, in turn, make agent. When Special Agent Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney) recruits him for a sensitive, internal affairs operation to monitor Hanssen, Eric sees his opening.

At first, Eric is not told that the FBI suspects Hanssen of being a spy. Implying that Hanssen’s propensity for posting clandestine sexual encounters on the internet between he and his wife (Kathleen Quinlan) could pose an embarrassment to the Bureau, Burroughs assigns Eric to be Hanssen’s assistant and tells him to inform her of his new boss’ every move. Only weeks into the assignment, Eric confronts Burroughs, telling her that he thinks she is on a witch hunt; the man he has gotten to know, while odd, is completely above board. It is only then that he is let in on the true scope of the investigation.

Thus begins a convoluted and dangerous game of cat and mouse as Eric tries to help the FBI make a case on a man he has grown to admire, without losing his sanity, his marriage, or his life in the process.

Breach tells the true story of one of the largest intelligence infiltrations in American history and the largest internal manhunt conducted in the FBI’s history (the Bureau assigned more than 500 agents to bring down the mole). Working clandestinely for almost two decades, the information Hanssen passed on to the Soviets and later the Russian government was incalculable — as was the fallout it produced.

Breach is very good at letting us know these facts. (The film fusses with the facts very little). The problem is, it is lousy at showing us. In an odd and unlikely turn, the film sacrifices plot on the altar of (genuinely tremendous) character development. If the film had spent just a bit more time showing us the other side of Hanssen’s duplicity, or at the very least its ramifications, Breach would have been a far better film. As it is, when Burroughs tells Eric that he just helped take down the worst spy in American history, it is impossible for us to feel the appropriate gravity of her comment.

While everyone in the film gives terrific performances, it is Chris Cooper who steals the show. Even in the role of a traitorous, duplicitous pervert, Cooper is completely sympathetic. While his motivations are never explained (nor were they in real life), we buy his compartmentalized life, replete, as it is, with contradictions that we accept as capable of co-existing beside each other. The final shot of the film, which is Cooper’s, is gut-wrenching.

Breach, a slow-burn thriller told from the inside out instead of the outside in, is not a great film. But it could have been — and with only the slightest bit of extra time and effort.

It will have to settle for being simply a very good film.

To read the full review, click here.


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