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Movie Review: "Breach"

Going all the way back to my old site in 2003, I've been posting occasional movie reviews during slow or slowish times, or sometimes even during the season.

Thus, on this evening when we are only hours away from the very first Cubs baseball game in five months, I went to see a DGA-sponsored screening of "Breach", the semi-fictionalized account of the sting and arrest of FBI agent Robert Hanssen, who is described in the film as having compromised over 50 people in his spying for the USSR over a period of more than twenty years.

Lies. Deceit. Betrayal. And that's only the beginning of what Hanssen did, so agent Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney) brings on board a kid named Eric O'Neill (a real person, played by Reese Witherspoon's ex Ryan Phillippe), who's shown expertise in computer systems, to be a mole in Hanssen's office, to try to get him caught in the act of making another drop.

Hanssen is played wonderfully by the droopy-faced Chris Cooper, who is alternately pious, bringing O'Neill to his church, and devious (in addition to his spying activities, he's also spending part of his time surfing porn sites on the Internet, going so far as to stand on his desk to drop an extra phone line into his office -- remember, this is pre-DSL 2001 -- to get online access, and mailing porn tapes to some of his contacts). Hanssen appears to be a good family man -- we see him with his loving wife, and playing in the snow with his grandchildren.

He asks O'Neill to tell him five things about himself, four true, and instantly figures out which one he's lying about -- or does he? O'Neill's pretty good at deception too, though he screws up a few times, to Burroughs' exasperation (Laura Linney's angular face is SO good at showing these sorts of emotions in a way that all of us can connect with).

A young French-Canadian actress named Caroline Dhavernas plays O'Neill's wife Juliana, an East German who truly loves him and cannot figure out why he is hiding things from her -- considering she already knows he's angling to be an FBI agent. She plays a key role in all of the intrigue; I won't spoil the story by telling you how.

The Hanssen story was major international news in early 2001 -- in fact, the movie makes a nod to the change in administrations during the investigation by showing two FBI workers taking down photos of Bill Clinton and Janet Reno and replacing them with photos of George W. Bush and John Ashcroft -- and so may be already familiar to you. It's fictionalized, of course, to some extent, but Eric O'Neill, who winds up being the hero here, is a real person, and if you don't know the nuts and bolts of the story, this is a good spy movie that tells you a lot about the real nature of lies, betrayal and deceit and how those can lie beneath the surface of just about anyone, no matter what they appear to be.