Well, here we are again, this week’s “based on a true story” film. In case you didn’t know, Breach is based on a true story. Director Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) not only opens the film with actual press-conference footage of former Attorney General John Ashcroft, but on the off chance that doesn’t clue you in, displays “Based on a true story” in big, white letters right after that.
Normally, the whole “true story” genre doesn’t really pose a huge problem (as long as the movie’s good). But in the case of Breach, there’s the sense that the makers believe the film is more important than it is, simply because what occurs on-screen happened in real life. Because of this, the audience is never given a reason to care, other than we’re supposed to, resulting in the proceedings having an air of gloomy, humorless self-importance hovering above them. Otherwise, the film is more or less a second-rate spy thriller—much like the Al Pacino/Colin Ferrell vehicle The Recruit (2003).
This is never more apparent than in the performance of Ryan Phillippe (and to a lesser extent Laura Linney). Phillippe plays young FBI recruit Eric O’Neill, who was put in place to nab Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper), a bureau mole who traded millions of dollars worth of secrets to the Soviets during the Cold War. Phillipe, who’s never really been known for his on-screen personality (he’s basically the acting equivalent of Lunesta), comes across as a boorish, prosaic dolt. This makes the whole idea that he took down a man who was lying to the FBI and selling sensitive information to the enemy for 20 years a bit peculiar.
Phillippe fails to create any compassion for his character, which is made even more apparent when Cooper is on-screen. When a film’s only really sympathetic character is a puritanical, homophobic and sexist sexual deviant with a Catherine Zeta-Jones fetish, who also happens to be a Communist spy, then you have a slight problem (by the last scene, you honestly feel a little bad for the guy). Cooper seems to be the only person involved who actually knows how to make a character seem human and real, and therefore carries the entirety of the film.
The film’s problems are only compounded by the fact that if you’re in the theater for the first couple of minutes of the film, then you know exactly how the story’s going to end. The argument against this would be that it’s not so much the end, but how the movie gets there, that matters; however, the severe lack of tension in the film subverts this argument. It’s as if the apparent high-minded nature of the material precludes any need to consider mere entertainment value.
All in all, Breach isn’t so much a bad movie as it is a lackluster one that isn’t as good as it thinks it is. For anyone looking for a taut spy thriller, look elsewhere. But as a character study of Hansen, featuring an excellent performance by Cooper, the movie works more than it doesn’t. Rated PG-13 for violence, sexual content and language.
— reviewed by Justin Souther