The Traitor Among Us (Film Review: “Breach”)


A timely, true-life spy thriller from a decade ago about arguably the largest Soviet counter-intelligence breach in U.S. history, whose cost to our country is still being measured today.


SnapShot Plot

Fresh on the heels of one of the most dramatic U.S.-Russia summit meetings ever, a strangely nostalgic Cold War chill hangs in the atmosphere, as permeating as the political maelstrom that has been swirling around headlines of election meddling, intelligence gathering, espionage and collusion. For those of us whose fascination doesn’t end with current events, we have only to look back to the gripping, suspenseful and ultimately tragic true story of Robert Hanssen, a counter-intelligence FBI agent whose traitorous dealings with (first) the Soviet Union and (then) Russia began in 1979 and ended with his arrest in 2001.

In the terrific 2007 film, Breach, the central character is played close to the chest by the incomparable Chris Cooper, who lets just enough daylight in on Hanssen to elicit the smallest degree of understanding while conveying just how creepy and ultimately evil this guy was. Laura Linney shines in a thankless role as FBI Agent Kate Burroughs, the person responsible for bringing in the ambitious young ‘wanna-be agent’ Eric O’Neill (played with sincerity by Ryan Philippe) whose ‘job’ it is to be Hanssen’s new assistant and to win his trust while watching and reporting on his every move. It’s not clear if Kate Burroughs was a real person or a fictitious character, but the real Eric O’Neill has stated that Chris Cooper’s portrayal of Robert Hanssen was as close to dead-on as possible. In the film, Hanssen’s extreme Catholicism (he’s a devout admirer of the splinter group, Opus Dei) proves to be an integral factor in Oneill’s ability (as a fellow Catholic) to ingratiate himself relatively quickly to the older, spiritually pedantic Hanssen. If Robert Hanssen had an Achille’s Heel, it’s his religiosity; at least that’s how the dynamic is portrayed in the movie.

As Hanssen allows the young O’Neill a certain amount of leverage over him, while insinuating himself into O’Neill’s own dynamic with his wife, it’s becoming clear to the investigators that things are soon reaching a crisis point, and if they can’t catch Hanssen in the act – and soon – their entire multi-decade case against the most notorious double agent in U.S. history runs the risk of being tragically diluted. Something has to happen, now.



Parting Shot

This exceptional and restrained spy thriller, directed by Billy Ray and written by Ray, Adam Mazer and William Rotko is a lean, taut film that sticks to the facts and avoids any sentimental romanticization of the world of intelligence and counter-intelligence. The central performance by Chris Cooper depicts a man whose motives remain blurry to the end, although when all was said and done he ‘earned’ almost $1.5 million from the Soviets/Russians. And to be clear, Robert Hanssen was not turned. He presented himself to the GRU in 1979; they did not recruit him.

The real-life story (behind the film) was so dramatic in itself, no Hollywood flourishes were needed to convey the sweeping costs to our nation as well as the lives that were sacrificed and may still be at stake because of the treason committed at the hands of Robert Hanssen. The filmmakers in fact had so much hard data to mine for the script, that even what they left out would make for an intriguing crime series of its own. Example: on more than one occasion, fellow FBI agents expressed suspicions about Robert Hanssen’s activities and loyalties. The first came in 1990 from Hanssen’s own brother-in-law (also at the Bureau) whose suspicions were aroused when his sister Bonnie (well played by the wonderful Kathleen Quinlan) spotted a large pile of cash on the couple’s bedroom bureau, and he also thought it odd when his sister spoke about Robert’s plan to retire in Poland (then an Eastern Bloc country). Knowing there was a suspected mole at the bureau, Hanssen’s brother-in-law spoke to his supervisor but no action was taken. A similar event occurred in 1993, when Hanssen hacked into the computer of a fellow agent, allegedly to prove that the system was insecure (a narrative line developed in the film). Although an investigation was started, again nothing came of it. Three years later, a convicted FBI mole by the name of Earl Pitts suspected Hanssen was similarly dirty, but strangely, once again no action was taken. And this is just a glimpse of the long-held suspicions, which in turn led to a long-game of cat and mouse until Robert Hanssen was finally brought to justice.

It seems the world has been captivated – indeed held hostage – by the continuing narrative of fraught U.S.-Russia relations. Without the benefit of a crystal ball, we can only surmise where this will all lead. But if history can teach us anything, it’s that the integrity of our national intelligence is too important an asset to take lightly or to chalk up to media bias, partisan politics or ‘derangement syndrome’. As Robert Hanssen sits in solitary confinement serving 15 life sentences without parole, the cost of treason should be quite self-evident.

Breach is presently streaming on Amazon Prime.

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