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Sunday, February 18, 2007

Breach

So my mother Belle, who to this day swears that during my birth I left permanent nail scratches along her uterine wall fighting to not leave my first real home and then grow up to abandon her like a child who doesn’t really care about her mother, the same woman who gave her life (insert deep sigh here), said that when she first saw the poster for the new movie Breach, now at the Essex Cinemas, she was absolutely certain it was about my sordid adolescence. The poster, a dark scene with two men and the gigantically phallic Washington Monument along with the tagline “Inspired by the true story of the greatest security breach in U.S. history” pretty much summed up my seventeenth year according to Belle. After all, what breach could be greater to any US mother than her daughter’s unwarranted “lapse” in allowing herself to be “breached,” and, worse yet, by two complete strangers (at least to her mother who was never even given the courtesy of getting to meet “Messrs. Wham-Bam-Thank-You, Ma’am” with so much as a drop-in for coffee yet alone a civilized Sunday dinner with the family?).

I tried to explain that
Breach was actually about a huge spy scandal within the CIA back in the mid-1990s, but the only thing she remembers about the ‘90s is that my older brother Conrad gave her three grandchildren during that decade while my womb remained, in her words, “a barren dustbowl of inactivity” (Insert another deep sigh here, though mine this time). I went ahead and worked out the details to pick her up to come with me to the movie, then took my blood pressure medication, my anxiety medication, a couple of Advil as a pre-emptive strike against the headache I knew she would bring me like a housewarming gift and then I paused to change my outfits four times before deciding on what to give her to criticize for today’s personalized version of tv’s “What Not To Wear”, hosted just for me by Belle Berkowitz-Epstein-O’Malley-Ringer. I girded my loins in silent prayer, picked up the woman who taught Joan Crawford parenting tips and then headed on to the Essex Cinemas and to Breach.

For those who don’t know,
Breach is based on the true story of master spy Robert Hanssen, the notorious rogue FBI agent who spent nearly 20 years trading top secret information to the Russians for cash all the while moving up the ranks within the agency and gaining an inscrutable reputation as a terrific company and family man. His actions irreparably damaged this country’s security over many years and were directly responsible for the deaths of at least three undercover operatives and tens of millions of dollars in intelligence data and labor. The film focuses on Hanssen’s final two month’s at the Bureau, during the time when Special Agent Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney;
Man of the Year) arranged for a newbie operative, Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe; Flags of Our Fathers), to take on the job as Hanssen’s clerk in the Department of Security Assurance ~ a fictitious division created just to trap the senior intelligence analyst. O’Neil’s assignment is to infiltrate the spy’s inner sanctum and hopefully see something that will alert the highers-up as to when Hanssen will make another drop of sensitive information, this time allowing the Bureau to catch him red-handed, something they haven’t been able to do in spite of their surveillance for the past couple of years. Special Agent Burroughs specifically chose O’Neil because of his shared Roman Catholic background with Hanssen as well as their common interest and abilities in computer programming.

O'Neill is well played by Phillippe, an actor who is notoriously limited in range. I mean, geez, he’s pretty, but I’ve seen cardboard with more panache and talent. However, in this role, Phillippe’s general inability to master more than two expressions plays well as he is supposed to look deadpan most of the time, masking his emotions while observing and recording every detail of his so-called “Boss’s” movements. The second emotion Phillippe does well is nervousness, something that he no doubt manages easily enough in the
presence of a powerhouse performer such as Chris Cooper (
Syriana), who plays Hanssen with so many layers of conflicting creepiness and comforting caring that it becomes easy to see how O’Neill would come to question whether what he was doing was right. Sure, it looks like Hanssen could be a spy, but still, he is such a devout Catholic, going to the traditional Latin Mass every single day. He also appears to adore his wife and is a committed family man, and he is generously willing to offer himself as a mentor to Eric as both an agent and as a friend. How can this be the heinous traitor Special Agent Burroughs is seeking?

Belle rung in constantly with her thoughts, apparently mistaking this showing for an audience participation version of the movie or worse yet ~ her own
chance to play Dr. Phil during the film. “He only spied to make sure his daughter could get her nose fixed so she’d find a nice husband and give him grandchildren while he’s young enough to enjoy them.” “You can tell Ryan Phillippe is supposed to be smart in this movie. His hair is dyed dark. The smart ones are always brunettes,” she commented while checking my blonde ends for splits. Your cousin Sheila has such pretty hair.” A man four rows in front of us turned around, glaring “It will still be pretty when the movie is over. Can you talk about it then?” he half-whispered. Belle glowered. “Yes,” she whispered back, “And then we’ll have to talk about your breath as well.”

I thought I was going to die. I felt somewhere between as bad as Ryan Phillippe pretends to feel as an actor upon seeing his “Boss” in handcuffs and chains at the end of
Breach and how bad he must have felt in real life when he realized that wife Reese (“I’ve got an Oscar and you’ve got bupkis”) Witherspoon had the goods on his extramarital activities and tossed him out of their Hollywood mansion without so much as a ‘toodleloo’.

While
Breach lacks a certain dramatic tension since the outcome of the story is not only a matter of public record but is spelled out for the audience in its first frames with a news clip of then US Attorney General John Ashcroft announcing the story’s conclusion, the real pleasure of the movie lies almost entirely in the finely nuanced performance of actor Chris Cooper, who truly deserves much more recognition than he receives. He consistently turns in remarkable characterizations, from diverse roles in movies like A Time to Kill, Seabiscuit, American Beauty, The Patriot, and Jarhead. Cooper is a terrific actor who is not afraid to play unpleasant or unpopular people, which, unfortunately, may have hurt his popularity with the glossy magazines and tabloid tv shows. Hopefully Breach will be his step up to the spotlight since he is clearly and unequivocally the star here. Even Belle couldn’t steal that away from him, though God knows she seemed to be trying, but then again, she is always trying. Very trying. Trust me, I know.

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