Thursday, June 14, 2007

Breach (2007)

Directed by: Billy Ray
Written by: Adam Mazer, William Rotko, Billy Ray
Starring: Chris Cooper, Ryan Phillippe, Laura Linney

Color, 110 minutes
Rated: PG-13

Grade: A-

Writer/Director Billy Ray is back, his last film was 2003's criminally underseen Shattered Glass (a.k.a. Hayden Christensen Acts?!), a brilliant expose on "journalist"/liar/professional fabricator Stephen Glass of The New Republic, and we should be thankful. This time around, Ray takes aim at another factual target, Robert Hanssen (played by the incomparable Chris Cooper), a former FBI agent, with a Catherine Zeta-Jones obsession, who sold information to the Soviets for 22 years before being caught in 2001. Breach is a considerable step up from Glass, in scope and ambition, but Ray proves himself worthy by never losing sight of the little things, and we as an audience get the opportunity to see the emergence of an important new voice in American cinema. Breach is a small, modest masterpiece of a thriller that avoids all the usual cliches, and makes all the right moves.

The audience's surrogate is Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe), a young, hardheaded operative looking to fast track his way to agent status (he's got a young bride (Caroline Dhavernas) on the home front, and can't bring back the bacon with his measly salary), who gets tipped to keep tabs on Hanssen. The higher-ups keep O'Neill in the dark, telling him only that Hanssen is a "sexual deviant" whose actions could be quite embarrassing for the Bureau if they were to get out. O'Neill agrees to the detail, but finds it quite boring, noting that Hanssen may be a prick, but he is no way a threat. Tension is tight between Hanssen and O'Neill at first, but their relationship grows due to common bonds, they're both Catholic, they're both married, and they both love their country. O'Neill begins to respect his target, and he willingly begins to accompany Hanssen and his wife (Kathleen Quinlan) to church and family get-togethers. It's all in good, clean, ultraconservative American fun, that is, until O'Neill gets hip to what's going on behind the scenes. Now, what use does a sexual deviant, he makes videos of he and his wife knocking boots, have for a trunk full of Uzi's and AK-47's? They're not for role-playing, I can assure you. O'Neill buckles down and raises his game, and you can pretty much guess the rest.

This type of material, which is done via television on a weekly basis, usually wouldn't make me take notice, let alone hand out kudos, but, then again, it is rarely ever handled this well. Instead of going the more-bang-for-buck-route, Ray revels in restraint. He pulls the leash; keeps it quiet, and allows the story to grow organically, focusing on the method, and putting the madness on the back burner. He's deep into his material, he knows it from the inside out, and he understands how incendiary it can be in its most simplistic form. He never shouts, he never rubs it in your face, and because of this, the tension builds, and you're drawn in closer to the screen, waiting silently for the bubble to burst. Through the intelligent and literate screenplay, he is able find the nuance in each character, adding dimensions that make them all the more sympathetic, and at times, frightening.

Speaking of characters, how about Chris Cooper, could this guy possibly be any better? Has there been a role that he couldn't conquer, or a film that he couldn't enhance exponentially? For Cooper, it's not enough for us to get the sense that Hanssen is a bad dude, he makes us look deeper, to peel away the layers of the individual. He makes us see all sides, from the loyal Opus Dei member to the gun aficionado to the devoted grandfather to the pervert, and we realize that this isn't an ordinary movie villain, but rather a fully formed character that we rarely get to see anymore. Most costars would cower in the presence of such a performance, but Phillippe stands his ground. Unfairly overlooked by the Academy for his superb work in Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers, Phillippe sets out to make viewers notice him this time around. O'Neill is a tough character, because on one hand, he obviously fears his opponent, but on the other, he respects and even admires him as well, but Phillippe nails it. He latches onto O'Neills inner turmoil and lets it boil just close enough to the surface that we know he means business. He doesn't play second fiddle here, he goes toe to toe with Cooper, and it's spellbinding to watch. Call it a secondary role if you want, I call it a role in which stars are made. Take note, Hollywood. Ray does a fine job filling out the rest of the cast with familiar faces and reliable character actors, most notably Laura Linney as Phillippe's superior, but when all is said and done it's the battle of wills between Cooper and Phillippe that retains in the memory banks.

Ray's eye for detail easily rivals his knack for casting. Together with cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, who paints the screen in cold and sterile steely blues reminiscent of his work in Silence of the Lambs, Ray embellishes his mise-en-scene with telling subtleties, such as a displayed crucifix, the replacement of portraits, and claustrophobic departmental hallways with unopened boxes of brand new computers. Ray is growing more assured as a visual stylist, and his work here hearkens back to such '70's filmmakers as Pakula and Coppola. Let's hope that he keeps it up.

Call me excitable if you must, but thoughtful, confident filmmaking such as this is all but absent in today's marketplace of rehashes and repulsion for over-excitable audiences. The symbolism can overstay its welcome at times, and the ending might be a little too flat, but overall we have a mature, compelling piece of work that asks for our attention instead of our basic reactions. Breach is a member of a dying breed. Enjoy it while it lasts.


H. Stewart said...

Good review; I've heard a lot of praise for this movie, and the fact that they just keep coming makes me really want to see it!

Clayton L. White said...

It's a good movie, and I hope it finds an audience.