[Screen It]

(2007) (Chris Cooper, Ryan Phillippe) (PG-13)

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Drama/Suspense: A rookie agent is assigned to work with, observe, and collect evidence that might prove his new boss, a legendary FBI veteran, might be working for the enemy.
It's early 2001 and Eric O'Neill (RYAN PHILLIPPE) is employed by the FBI with dreams of becoming an agent. He gets the chance when supervisor Kate Burroughs (LAURA LINNEY) picks him for an assignment that could be one of the most important in the agency's history.

That's because the powers-that-be believe that veteran agent and computer expert Robert Hanssen (CHRIS COOPER) is actually working as a double agent for the Russians. Kate also informs Eric that Robert is a sexual deviant, thus making the young man unsure of what to expect on his first day working for the 56-year-old veteran who's been made head of the fictitious Information Assurance Division.

Robert comes off as cold and calculating, and untrusting of his supervisors. Yet, his strong religious convictions and family ties to his wife Bonnie (KATHLEEN QUINLAN) and their kids make Eric second-guess the assessment made by Kate as well as fellow supervisors Rich Garces (GARY COLE) and Dan Plesac (DENNIS HAYSBERT).

To make matters worse for Eric, he can't tell his wife Juliana (CAROLINE DHAVERNAS) about his real assignment, a fact that leads to tension between them, especially when Robert and Bonnie infiltrate their lives, pushing their religious beliefs on them. From that point on and despite his doubts, Eric tries to note and collect any sort of incriminating evidence against Robert, all while trying to prevent his new boss from discovering what's occurring.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Hollywood has long been enamored with telling tales of renegade characters, and moviegoers have long enjoyed watching them. It doesn't seem to make any difference whether the rebel is good (and trying to fight a corrupt system) or bad (in turning against those who or that which created them) as they're usually fascinating and commanding sorts.

And that's because they're often smart, resourceful, wily, and ultimately powerful in ways many viewers would like to see themselves. The flip side of that are the tales pitting such veteran characters, who've turned bad, against green but determined rookies who realize they're outmatched, but are equally determined to win.

Such is the case in "Breach," a fairly engrossing and entertaining adaptation of the true-life story of veteran FBI agent Robert Hanssen, the man behind the biggest security breach in U.S. intelligence history. Considering that it comes from Billy Ray, the second-time director who made a big splash with "Shattered Glass" and proved he could more than capably handle a true-life tale featuring an adversarial relationship and the all-important quest for truth, the bar's been raised for this thematically similar pic.

As was the case with that film, anyone who observes the news will know the general outcome of this one. For those who don't (which is probably quite a few viewers), Ray and co-writers Adam Mazer & William Rotko make what could be a mistake of revealing the ending at the very beginning (using footage of Attorney General Ashcroft announcing the arrest of their man). What then follows, is a general rewind to show us what will lead up to that moment.

While obviously historically accurate, it does rob the unknowing viewer of the surprise and suspense regarding the truth. And that's rather pivotal considering that's the very element on which the story hangs. In it, Ryan Phillippe -- rarely better than he is here -- plays the wannabe FBI agent who's assigned to observe Hanssen -- Chris Cooper in a terrific and chilling performance -- and prove that he's really a double agent.

Eric is informed -- by Laura Linney's hardened FBI supervisor -- that Hanssen's not only a turncoat, but also a sexual deviant. Yet, while the veteran is decidedly less than warm and fuzzy in terms of interpersonal skills, he's also a churchgoing and strong family man, a few of various characteristics that don't seem to confirm the treachery of which he's been accused behind his back.

What then follows is something of a cat and mouse game between the two, with neither the mouse nor the viewer sure how much the cat realizes is occurring around him. Ray and his cast do get some decent mileage out of that nebulousness, and there are some resultant taut scenes of suspense as Eric tries to get info about his boss in his absence or delay his return when others are doing the same.

Yet, the fact that by one means or another we know the truth about the character, that steals some of the film's thunder. Credit does go to the filmmaker for managing to keep things engaging and compelling, but everything probably would have been far more effective (at least for those in the dark about the reality of the situation) had the outcome been in doubt.

Watching the film, I couldn't help but obviously think of the director's preceding film (and wondering if he's going to be a one-trick pony in terms of such storytelling), but also other pics such as "The Firm" that pretty much worked on the same premise (rookie on the inside must prove the lawbreaking of his bosses and avoid their wrath).

That Tom Cruise flick was clearly fictitious, but director Sydney Pollack managed to turn the populist potboiler into a riveting and engaging experience where the momentum just kept building and building. While there are similarly "fun" suspense scenes here, there isn't that same storytelling sense of a runaway train gaining speed as it careens toward the conclusion.

With terrific performances from the leads and good ones from the supporting cast, however, the film nevertheless works and certainly isn't ever dull. It just seems to be missing that extra spark and bit of mystery regarding the conclusion that might have turned it into a classic of the genre. Good but not quite great, "Breach" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed January 12, 2007 / Posted February 16, 2007

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