Film: Breach

Breach, the new spy film from director Billy Ray, deals with Robert Hanssen, an FBI agent who sold documents to the KGB and the SVR (the Russian intelligence agency) in post-collapse Russia. During his 16 years as a traitor, Hanssen provided thousands of crucial documents to the enemies of his country, estimated by his Soviet handler in Washington, Victor Cherkashin, to be worth “tens of billions of dollars.” Hanssen, who was arrested on February 18, 2001, at a drop site in Foxstone Park, Virginia, also exposed the names of numerous Soviet double agents working for our side—at least two of whom were murdered in Moscow due to his revelations. There’s no doubt that Hanssen was a serious and destructive Soviet spy, but one has to wonder why Hollywood has chosen his particular case as the subject for a movie. He was a dull, often nasty loner with a chip on his shoulder, who never did field work and who chose to sell out his country for cash and diamonds.

Surely there are far more dramatic (and cinematic) spy stories from the Cold War and its aftermath. Sadly, the last 60 years have produced hundreds of traitors in high-ranking positions in the U.S. government, and all of the suspicions of the early years have now been confirmed by the opening of the KGB files and the revelation of the Venona tapes in 1995. But no one’s making a film about those spies and their extraordinary stories. So why Hanssen? Because he was a Catholic. Even worse, he went to Mass regularly and was a member of that great Hollywood bugaboo, Opus Dei.

The second shot of the film shows the traitor praying the rosary. He has a crucifix on his wall and a statue of Mary on his desk. He goes to confession, proselytizes his faith, and tells his lapsed-Catholic assistant to pray the rosary “every day.” Naturally, Hanssen’s wrong about everything else as well Hillary Clinton, Planned Parenthood, women in pants, and lesbians. He’s also, like all repressed Catholics, a sexual pervert: videotaping his sexual encounters with his wife and showing them to a friend, posting topless photographs of his wife on the Internet, and frequenting strip clubs. Since all of these things (and much more) are actually true about the real-life Hanssen, he’s perfect fodder for a Hollywood film.

Given that rather obvious caveat, Breach is still a well-made film, beautifully shot by Tak Fujimoto, with good pacing, dialogue, and tension. But the key to the film is the remarkable and mesmerizing lead performance by Chris Cooper (Seabiscuit, Adaptation), one of today’s finest actors. He manages to capture the darkness of the man, his confused motives, and, at brief moments, his obvious derangement. As Hanssen wrote to his Soviet handlers, “One might propose that I am either insanely brave or quite insane. I’d answer neither. I’d say, insanely loyal. Take your pick. There is insanity in all the answers.”

Hanssen, who’s currently incarcerated in solitary confinement at a supermax penitentiary in Colorado, has never clearly articulated his motives. Cherkashin speculates in his excellent book Spy Handler: Memoir of a KGB Officer (2005) that Hanssen’s motive “must have been professional. He was either unhappy with his job or simply bored.” It’s also clear that Hanssen needed the money, that he was rebelling against his tough policeman father, and that he wanted to prove his unrecognized capabilities by outwitting his FBI superiors. Nicknamed “the Mortician” by his fellow agents, Hanssen was seen as a competent but boring and embittered desk agent with no leadership skills. All these confusions of motive allow Cooper to play Hanssen with layers of complexity that are all the more interesting since there’s never a simple answer to why this man betrayed his country. Surely Hanssen’s Catholic posturing and self-righteousness were both an excellent cover as well as a way for this clearly disturbed man to attempt to deal with his guilt.

In telling the Hanssen story, Ray (Shattered Glass) focuses on the relationship between the traitor and young Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe), the FBI employee who was assigned to spy on the spy. Thus the film is a carefully woven cat-and-mouse game between the clever Hanssen and the equally resourceful O’Neill. In real life, O’Neill (who sold his story to Hollywood) did facilitate Hanssen’s final arrest, helping the bureau to catch the spy red-handed at the drop in Virginia. But, in fact, the FBI already had the goods on Hanssen in 2000, thanks to an unknown Russian agent who sold the KGB/SVR’s file on Hanssen to the United States for over a million dollars. The file included all kinds of incriminating evidence, including materials with Hanssen’s fingerprints and a tape recording of Hanssen’s conversation with a KGB operative. Without demeaning the efforts of O’Neill, it’s hard to disagree with those who have criticized the film for its focus on a relatively minor figure in the Hanssen case.

Within its narrow focus, Phillippe does a credible job keeping up with Cooper, but the extremely talented Laura Linney is wasted as O’Neill’s efficient supervisor. Similarly, the cliched subplot about O’Neill’s fading relationship with his wife (Caroline Dhavernas) is never compelling; far worse is the portrayal of Bonnie Hanssen (Kathleen Quinlan) as a simple-minded, traditional, Catholic wife. The script, cowritten by Adam Mazer, William Rotko, and Ray, gives Quinlan nothing to do with her stereotyped role—a true loss, since the real-life Bonnie was an interesting and attractive woman who actually discovered her husband’s earlier treason, selling documents to the Soviet GRU in 1979. She immediately took her husband to a priest where he confessed, vowed never to do it again, and prom-ised to give the $30,000 he’d been paid to Mother Teresa’s Indian missions.

That event and many others were depicted in Lawrence Schiller’s television film Master Spy: The Robert Hanssen Story (2002), written by Norman Mailer and featuring William Hurt as Hanssen. Although the movie was a rather pedestrian version of the story, it did attempt to take a broader view of the case by showing more of Bonnie, introducing Hanssen’s Soviet handlers, and portraying Hanssen’s bizarre trip to Hong Kong with Washington stripper Priscilla Sue Galey.

Breach, already limited by its narrow focus, also seems unwilling to learn anything from its own spy tale. One of the most obvious lessons of the Hanssen case was the terribly lax security at the FBI. In his 22 years at the bureau, Hanssen was never poly- graphed; his own brother-in-law, who also worked at the bureau, informed them in 1990 that Hanssen should be investigated for espionage. And still the spying continued: In 1985, which Cherkashin calls the “Year of the Spy,” Hanssen began spying for the Soviets while three other U.S. traitors (Edward Lee Howard, John Walker, and Ronald Pelton) were publicly exposed and Jonathan Pollard, at Navy intelligence, was arrested for passing secrets to Israel. At the same time, another treacherous spy, Aldrich Ames, was also feeding extremely valuable information to the Soviets. In his co-authored book The Main Enemy, former CIA division chief Milt Bearden claims that there was also a “fourth mole” (along with Howard, Ames, and Hanssen) who has never been exposed, and Cherkashin believes that Bearden’s claim is “undeniable.”

Throughout the Cold War, Holly-wood did its liberal best to try to create a kind of equivalency in its spy films. Now, unfortunately, even after the Wall has come down, and history has clearly shown us that 100 million people were killed by Marxist ideology in the 20th century, Hollywood still has no interest in the true heroes and villains of the period. It also has little understanding of the importance of intelligence and the devastating effects of treason. Roman Catholics, carefully shepherded by their pontiffs, were the great western bulwark against the murderous “ism” that ravaged the planet, and it’s truly pathetic that Hollywood has nothing better to do than use the tragic story of the deranged Robert Hanssen to demean the Catholic Faith.


  • William Baer

    William Baer is a graduate of U.S.C. Cinema where he received the Jack Nicholson Screening Award and taught in the Filmic Writing department. He currently teaches English and Film at the University of Evansville, Indiana and is a frequent contributor to Creative Screenwriting.

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

With so much happening in the Church right now, we are hard at work drawing out the battle plans so we can keep the faithful informed—but we need to know who we have on our side. Do you stand with Crisis Magazine?

Support the Spring Crisis Campaign today to help us meet our crucial $100,000 goal. All monthly gifts count x 12!

Share to...