There’s a moment in BREACH when Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper) is complaining to Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe) that the FBI has a “gun” culture and only the agents that work in the field, with guns, get the good jobs. The intelligence personnel tend to get passed over because their job is boring even though it’s just as important, if not more so. I really liked that reoccurring theme because I felt it was applicable to the film as well. The whole time I kept thinking how much more exciting the movie would be if they had guns and were actually involved in some kind of action.
Even though the film centers on the greatest (worst?) espionage case in FBI history, the story is told about as dull as it possibly could be. Robert is the man committing the betrayal against the FBI and has been for many years. But we’re catching up with him late in his scheme and therefore all the undercover dealings and meetings are in the past. The story is really focused on Eric’s attempt to catch him in the act, which means a lot of them hanging out, discussing things that have nothing to do with secrets, government or anything else that might be interesting. We don’t have any great encounters where we feel any intensity or peril; we know how this is going to end and the filmmakers drag it along the entire time.
There is a good film somewhere in this story, they just chose to focus more on Eric than Robert. Robert seems to have had a really eventful life, we just picked it up after all the interesting things happened. This would have worked better as a life story film where we follow his gradual demise, his first betrayal and then his attempt to justify and cope with everything he’s done. It would be fascinating to witness a character arc of someone like Robert Hanssen. Instead, we get insinuations and hints as to why/how he committed his crimes, but without actually experiencing them with him, it just falls flat.
The filmmakers also chose to add in a strong religious angle into the story that was never fully developed and only served to make things awkward. It played a part in the relationship between Robert and Eric, but it was used too heavily and tended to distract us from the story. Religion, in that manner, is better used as an afterthought, not as a focal point. They did a similar thing with Robert’s sexual obsession. Obviously, it’s a conflict of interest to be a religious pervert, but that’s the kind of character they tried to develop. The conflict is never really addressed and in the end, they washed each other out and we didn’t learn much more about Robert than we started with.
When you’re making true stories, you’re often times limited with what kind of liberties you can take. Clearly, they couldn’t write in a giant gunfight with terrorists, but they could have done more than what they did. Regardless of the grandeur of the story, the film was told in a about as dull a fashion as you can tell a film and that made for a very boring movie.