Hanssen is a pervert, incidentally, prone to mailing out secretly-recorded tapes of sexual encounters with his devoutly religious wife, but the obscenity investigation is a smokescreen. As O'Neill gets to know Hanssen and stands up for a man he believes to be misunderstood, Agent Burroughs tells him the truth: Hanssen is a traitor. Not only has he been selling government secrets for years, undermining the FBI and the security of the nation at every turn, but the havoc that Hanssen has wreaked makes his espionage the most devastating acts of treason ever committed against the United States. The FBI has been well aware of all of this and is in the midst of the largest, most intensive investigation in the bureau's storied history, but Hanssen must be caught in the act. O'Neill is assigned the daunting task of continuing to spy on Hanssen, a man who's deeply paranoid by nature and whose life work is uncovering the lies of others with nothing more than a passing glance.
As tailor-made for Hollywood as Breach may sound, the film is firmly rooted in reality. The arrest of Robert Hanssen in 2001 is the basis of the story, and its screenplay was penned by none other than the real-life Eric O'Neill himself.
Breach is the second low-key political thriller to arrive on HD DVD this year courtesy of Universal. The first was Robert De Niro's The Good Shepherd, which similarly eschewed gunplay, high speed car chases, elaborate kidnapping plots, unlikely third-act romances, and hundreds of thousands of pounds of C4 in favor of political intrigue. With as many uninspired, unimaginative thrillers as Hollywood churns out every year, it's unexpected to get one movie that leans so far away from the traditional genre conventions, let alone two in such an extremely short period of time.
Breach is by far the stronger of the two. The Good Shepherd was bloated and lacked any sort of focus, seemingly more interested in setting itself up as a sprawling epic than a particularly engaging film. Breach, on the other hand, takes place entirely over the course of two months, the narrative never strays outside the greater D.C. area, and it doesn't get bogged down in the minutiae of its supporting characters or any meadering subplots. Lean and uncluttered, Breach possesses an unmistakable confidence in the strength of its storytelling.
Breach announces to the audience from its very first scene that Robert Hanssen is a traitor and has been apprehended by the FBI before turning the clock back two months. The question isn't whether or not the FBI is right to be suspicious of Hanssen but how an investigation that was already well underway arrived at its eventual conclusion. With few subplots, no red herrings or double crossings, and no computer generated mayhem to lean on, Breach demands both a strong cast and a strong screenplay. It succeeds on both counts.
Eric O'Neill is portrayed as a skilled young man eager to prove himself and to rise through the ranks, and I get much the same impression about Ryan Phillippe in his performance. It doesn't hurt that he's flanked on all sides by such talent. Laura Linney is as reliable as ever as O'Neill's mentor and his only safe port in this political storm, and Wonderfalls' Caroline Dhavernas as O'Neill's young East German wife Juliana further establishes that Breach is as much about trust and loyalty as it is about betrayal.
The most remarkable performance in the movie belongs to Chris Cooper. His portrayal of Robert Hanssen is exceptional, so much so that I hope the film's theatrical release so early in the year doesn't lead to him being overlooked when the award season rolls around. He draws Hanssen as a fascinatingly complex creature. On the surface, he's abrasive, arrogant, misogynistic, and snidely condescending, but there's also a warmth and sincerity underneath that's remarkably endearing when Hanssen lets his guard down. Hanssen's passion for his religion and the contradiction of his sexual deviance humanize him. It's essential to the story that O'Neill grow to respect and admire Hanssen -- to see him as misunderstood rather than a bitter lech lurching towards retirement -- and that carries over to the audience as well. Even though it's established from the first frame of the film that Hanssen betrayed the country he swore to protect, Breach neither demonizes nor glorifies him.
It's equally intriguing that director Billy Ray doesn't make any effort to pry open Hanssen's skull; his colleagues view him as impenetrable, and the movie treats Hanssen in much the same way. Hanssen doesn't resort to any drawn-out monologues or deliberately explain what drove him to treason; Breach has the restraint to let Cooper's performance speak for itself, and the lack of a clear motive makes the situation that much more unsettling.
A traditional thriller would have reserved Hanssen's treason as a dramatic revelation in the second act, but Breach boasts an unconventional structure, revealing at the outset that Hanssen is a traitor and has been apprehended by the FBI. The rest of the film delves into the final two months of the investigation, but even though the audience knows the eventual conclusion and is aware of key facts that some of the leads have yet to discover, Breach still manages to be remarkably suspenseful. The film accomplishes this without the usual theatrics but by richly drawing these two characters, each of whom is constantly testing the other to claw beneath the surface and uncover his secrets and weaknesses.
Breach also paints a decidedly different version of the FBI than what's traditionally shown on screen. Breach at least initially approaches the bureau as being like almost any other mundane desk job, complete with requisitions for new computers that never seem to arrive, petty office politics, and bickering over who landed the office with a window. The film doesn't show any contempt for the FBI, but as it's explained in the disc's extras, Breach looks at the bureau as an organization of men and women rather than a monolithic government agency.
Many are certain to shrug Breach off as a bore, and presumably its subdued approach coupled with The Good Shepherd's underperformance at the box office led to the film being released with such little fanfare this past February. It's my hope that the largely overlooked Breach will now have a chance to find its audience on DVD and HD DVD. The story of the most incalculably devastating act of betrayal this nation has ever known is compelling in its own right, but Chris Cooper's complex portrayal of Robert Hanssen elevates Breach into something truly extraordinary. Highly Recommended.
Video: Director Billy Ray mentions several times throughout the disc's extras that Breach's visual style owes a great deal to some of his favorite films from the 1970s, and presumably it's because of that '70s-minded aesthetic that this 1.85:1 high definition presentation is one of the less instantly striking day-and-date releases from Universal. Its understated visuals are a seamless fit with the tone of the movie, particularly the film's somewhat grainy texture and the cold, subdued hues of its palette, even if they don't make for high definition eye candy.
The image isn't as crisply defined as most of the recently produced films that have made their way to HD DVD, and I've been told by one of DVD Talk's other high definition movie reviewers that Breach looked much the same way theatrically. Close-ups are generally sharp and richly detailed, although Breach doesn't impress in quite that same way whenever the camera pulls back. Contrast looks rather flat in its most dimly lit sequences, such as the drunken argument at Rock Creek Park late in the film. I was also surprised by the presence of light ringing around some edges. I've spotted edge haloes in a few of Universal's catalog titles, but I believe this is the first of their day-and-date releases where this has crept in.
This HD DVD of Breach looks quite good -- I don't want to give any impression otherwise -- and it's certainly a marked improvement over the lackluster standard definition presentation on the flipside of this combo disc. It's not a title I'd recommend for people who objectively place video quality above all else, but this HD DVD is likely a faithful representation of the way Breach looked during its theatrical run.
Audio: Breach is predominately driven by its dialogue and score -- there's very little gunplay and none of the cat-and-mouse theatrics of more traditional thrillers -- and it follows that the disc's Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 audio is similarly understated. The sound design is perfectly appropriate for a film with this sort of approach. There's a reasonably strong sense of directionality across the front channels, and the mix reserves the surrounds largely for atmosphere and to reinforce the music. Despite just a handful of gunshots fired and a lack of megaton explosions, Breach has a surprisingly robust low end, particularly during the most dramatic moments of Mychael Danna's score. The film's dialogue is presented flawlessly, rendered crisply and cleanly without any concerns.
A 5.1 French dub has also been provided along with subtitles in English and French. Spanish subtitles are exclusively on the standard definition side of the disc for reasons I don't quite understand.
Extras: Breach features all of the extras from the simultaneously released DVD, and those are presented again in standard definition. As has been the case for all but a couple of the studio's day-and-date releases up to this point in 2007, Breach also offers U-Control interactivity exclusive to this HD DVD.
The disc includes 18 minutes of deleted and alternate scenes, both letterboxed in non-anamorphic widescreen. The alternate footage consists of two scenes that were later reshot, including an early take on the fight Eric and Juliana have after she stumbles upon one of Hanssen's private video tapes and a more ambiguous spin on the epilogue. Both are inferior to what made it into the final cut, and director Billy Ray and editor Jeffrey Ford say as much in their optional audio commentary.
There are also eight deleted scenes that run 12 minutes in total. Several of them are redundant, reiterating information already established elsewhere in the movie, and brief character moments make up the bulk of the rest. The lengthiest and most intriguing scenes are, of course, between Hanssen and O'Neill. The first has O'Neill snooping around his boss' office while Hanssen calls him repeatedly, berating his clerk for failing to answer the phone appropriately. The other sees Hanssen testing his young protege in the commissary with his own 'list of five' -- having him pick out the lie in a list of five stated facts about himself -- and then giving O'Neill pointers on how to spot all of the liars scattered around them. Audio commentary is offered for this footage as well.
The HD DVD features a 20 minute Dateline piece from 2001 on the Hanssen case. Breach picks up two months before his arrest, and this report is able to spend much more time on Hanssen's background and his elaborate methods of communicating with his Russian handlers. It's interesting to watch this before Breach and then note how much of this made it into the movie; excerpts from Hanssen's letters to the Russians are quoted word-for-word in the film, for instance. Several of Hanssen's former co-workers in the FBI are interviewed, commenting on the man they knew and respected for so many years as well as speculating on what would drive him to betray his country.
Two featurettes about the making of the film have also been provided, although they're too brief to delve into much detail. "Anatomy of a Character" (7 min.) features comments from most of the cast, along with director Billy Ray and writer Eric O'Neill, about Chris Cooper's portrayal of Robert Hanssen. Its focus is on Cooper's preparation for the role, the actor's unique talents, and how many of the real-life Hanssen's eccentricities were incorporated into the performance.
"Breaching the Truth" (11 min.) casts a wider net on the making of the film, including the unconventional development of the screenplay, detailed casting notes, the intense attention paid to authenticity, and having the real life Eric O'Neill on the set during filming. The featurette is a mix of behind the scenes footage and interviews with many of the key players on both sides of the camera, and thankfully very little of its lean runtime is squandered on clips from the film.
Both featurettes are presented in anamorphic widescreen.
The HD DVD-exclusive U-Control interactivity includes nearly the entirety of both "Anatomy of a Character" and "Breaching the Truth" as well as incorporating a great deal of footage not provided elsewhere on the disc, so those interested in settling down to spend a couple of hours with the U-Control can pass on watching those two featurettes individually. The U-Control is limited to picture-in-picture video this time around, incorporating interviews with the cast and crew as well as behind the scenes footage.
Breach suffers from the same complaint I generally have about the way Universal has implemented their flavor of next-gen interactivity. If I go through the menu and expressly select U-Control, even though there's only one type of feature on the disc -- meaning I'm not really controlling much of anything -- I still have to hit the "OK" button every single time the picture-in-picture icon lights up. As Breach starts, this happens once every minute or so, with the icon reappearing almost as soon as it disappears. It's not user-friendly. It serves no purpose. I don't know why Universal is so insistent on this repetitive, annoying approach, which I can only imagine is forcing users to continually and unnecessarily mash a button so they can say it's interactive.
The quality of the footage scattered throughout this U-Control feature is worth that mild hassle, though. O'Neill and Ray delve in depth into how the project came together, provide detailed casting notes, and touch on the various themes of the movie. Ray notes how he wanted the cinematography to look back to the 1970s, his (and my, incidentally) favorite decade for cinema, and he also describes his approach to directing actors. As the person who actually lived these events, O'Neill is able to discuss how closely the film reflects the reality of what happened, his and Juliana's home life, and his own response to the aftermath of this case. All of the key cast members are also given the opportunity to comment on portraying these real-life men and women. Authenticity is a particularly favorite topic, such as filming Hanssen's arrest on the actual spot where it took place, working with Opus Dei to ensure that the religious organization was given a fair shake, and even some comments from "Pinkie" who watched the arrest as it happened from her nearby home.
I wouldn't have expected an audio commentary to offer much unique insight considering how many other extras there are on this disc, but the discussion with Billy Ray and Eric O'Neill is surprisingly revealing. It's extremely fast-paced as well, with the two men rarely pausing to catch their breath. Some of the highlights include an explanation as to why the film opens with footage of John Ashcroft, some of the specific films from the '70s that inspired Ray's approach to the material, and a happy accident that went unnoticed while filming the aftermath of Hanssen's arrest. O'Neill spends a fair amount of time noting how the film slightly diverts from reality: for instance, the gunfire in the park never happened, closed circuit sex was changed to a video tape mailed overseas to avoid introducing an unnecessary character, and Eric knew from word one that he was investigating a traitor. Ray is rightly proud of his film but isn't blind to some of its flaws, and he points out certain scenes and individual moments he's not entirely happy with, such as Hanssen's jargon-babbling rant about the FBI's computer infrastructure. This is a considerably above-average commentary and is well worth a listen.
Conclusion: Breach is the remarkably well-crafted telling of the greatest act of treason ever committed against the United States. Boasting an exceptional lead performance by Chris Cooper and confident in its ability to shape tension and suspense without leaning on most of the usual genre cliches, Breach is understated but incredibly engaging, and it's a rewarding discovery for those who missed the film during its brief theatrical run. Breach's subdued visual style doesn't make for the most dazzling high definition experience, but the movie looks reasonably nice on HD DVD, and the disc is bolstered by a strong soundtrack and an extensive selection of extras. Highly Recommended.