On its tenth anniversary, The Spread takes a look at why Billy Ray’s political thriller Breach is so incredibly relevant to life at this very moment.
With the resignation of US National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, amid dogged allegations of collusion with Russian intelligence throughout not just the early portion of Donald Trump’s presidency but during the election process also, everyone is beginning to feel that familiar chill of Cold War tension again. But the problems that America faces now, with persistent rumours of Russian interference and even spying at the highest levels of government, aren’t as much of a throwback as you might think and human infiltration in the digital age not as farfetched either.
Billy Ray’s 2007 film Breach told the story of the case built against Robert Hanssen, an FBI agent and computer expert responsible for leaking the greatest security breach in US history to Russian intelligence over the course of two decades. It primarily focuses on Eric O’Neill, a young up and comer tasked with posing as Hanssen’s assistant to collect vital information on him, who also served as a consultant on the film. O’Neill is played by Ryan Phillipe, an actor who never quite found the groove of leading man success in Hollywood but fits perfectly into O’Neill’s required role of submissive to the dominant Hanssen, played to menacing perfection by Chris Cooper. The curt indignity and pious anger that Cooper so effortlessly applies to Hanssen’s ultimately haunting persona is enough reason alone to see the film.
Beyond its examination of character though Breach is a police procedural through and through. It’s a film about doing the right thing, how hard that can be and how much of a toll it can take on a person. Its importance to the American social narrative stretches far beyond paranoia of betrayal and patriotic tribalism. It is a film about the rule of law. It’s so tempting, and so easy, to portray law enforcement and the government as these opaque entities working against the wishes of “the people”, whoever they may be exactly; imprisoning without cause or due process. But Breach is a quiet salute to the gears of bureaucracy that move slowly because they are weighed down by the cumbersome, but necessary, burden of evidence. It’s the duty of the agents in the film to discover how a person could conspire with a foreign government against their own, it’s the audience’s to discover why.
On his first day, O’Neill is ordered by Hanssen to just take two new computers from the hallway, meant for other employees, because requisition is for “bureaucrats”. Ray homes in on this idea of Hanssen as a man ruled by ego more than anything else. A man afforded so much power by his belief in himself, and his belief in divine right, that he has talked himself into the most heinous treason. He views himself as an outsider, ignored by the successful clique that’s destroying his country through arrogance and blind foolishness, to the degree that he betrays his colleagues and nation for personal gain. He loathes this image of the sheepishly soft liberal so intensely, “the world doesn’t need any more Hillary Clintons” he says as he explains his hatred for women wearing trousers, that he’ll do anything to hurt it. He’s not just defying the slovenly branches of government because he can but also because he believes he should. This is where religion, conservative and orthodox Christianity specifically, comes into play.
Despite Hollywood’s fixation on the Jesus character it’s actually very rare to see American cinema put Christianity under a hot lamp and a microscope, particularly when it pertains to politics. It’s mostly just accepted as a card being played for votes without ever really examining its impact on the psychology of people who fervently believe in it and apply it to their work in government. The primary problem being the age old pitfall of hypocrisy. Hanssen’s wife, Bonnie, sanctimoniously explains to O’Neill’s wife, Julianne, that the Hanssens are not “grocery store Catholics”; they don’t pick what they want and leave the rest on the shelf. It serves to highlight the origins of Hanssen’s priggishness and his place within a wider, human, tragedy that has existed since the beginning of history. Power corrupts, pride inevitably leads to hubris and people can create any moral justification for unthinkable acts.
It’s possible that today, on the film’s tenth anniversary, it is the most politically, maybe even socially, relevant film in America and, depending upon the ramifications of such a potentially wide conspiracy, perhaps even the world. It’s a fairly unassuming film to hold such a title. It very often strikes you as something made for the small screen rather than something made for the big screen. There are certainly a lot of obvious embellishments made for the benefit of drama too. But it’s a film that deserves discovering by a new audience and rediscovery by an old one.