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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Film: Billy Ray's Grasp Exceeds His Reach With Breach

Screenwriter and Director Billy Ray seems to have a thing about the truth. His previous film Shattered Glass looked at the true story of newspaper plagiarist Stephen Glass and his latest, Breach, explores the last few months of freedom for real-life FBI traitor Robert Hanssen. Both films have the same fatal flaw in that Ray is unable to enlighten us as to why these people practice to deceive.

This is exacerbated by the underlying moral tone to the filmmaking -- Ray wants us to know that lying is bad! And yet the main practitioners -- in Breach especially so -- are so much more interesting onscreen than the people whom the audience's sympathies are expected to stay with.

Chris Cooper gives another finely layered performance as Hanssen, a complex man who appeared to love his country with a deep moral fervor, was deeply religious and harshly judgemental of gays, Democrats and women who wear pants. It's a tricky performance , all lizardy eyes and scowling brow. But you also understand how Ryan Philippe's character, tasked with getting dirt on Hanssen, would come to respect him after a time. Anne Archer, as Hanssen's wife, is terrific in the limited screen time she's given, convincing as a sensual deeply spiritual women who perhaps harbors a dark side. I could have watched a whole movie centered on these two, exploring the faces they put on in public and their deeply private contradictions.

Unfortunately Philippe may respect Hanssen but we don't come to respect Philippe, who wears his serious dark hair and level boy scout gaze throughout the film. Too much of the film is spent on his struggle to understand why his superiors want him to investigate this seemingly tight-assed moral guy for pornographic e-mails and his anguish over having to keep his true agenda from his wife. His character is essentially bland and underwritten and Philippe doesn't bring a hell of a lot more to it. It doesn't help that Caroline Dhavernas is so very good in the equally underwritten and cliched role of the wife who doesn't appreciate her husband's secrecy. It's a tiresome cliche to have the goody-goody crimefighter in movie after movie come home to a woman who just doesn't get their goody-goodiness dedication to their job (see American Gangster for an extreme example of this). The movie asks us to celebrate Philippe's resignation from the Bureau as a triumph for truth but in fact it's a cop-out for truthiness.

Laura Linney is on hand as Philippe's superior agent who we are meant to see is a Good Person who has to do Bad Things. She asks callow Philippe if his glimpse into her spouseless catless life is what drove him out of the Agency and though he demurs that's certainly the arithmetic set up by Billy Ray. Philippe essentially resigns because he doesn't ever want to lie to his wife, who is by the film's standards too upstanding to care that it probably would help her not to know what he knows.

Linney's sharp insightful acting rescues what could have been a flat character -- her lines have the force of weariness and resoluteness. Her very aliveness in her role undercuts Philippe's supposed heroism, no matter how hard the screenplay tries to convince us otherwise.

The problem is that it's an inherently unconvincing screenplay. Too often we learn about Hanssen because someone tells us, and then we are given little glimpses over time. In lieu of anything resembling investigation on Philippe's part we get a couple of standard spy scenes of him beating the clock while getting something out of Hanssen's office, or stalling him while others pore over his car. Meanwhile Linney plays the part of Agent Exposition, telling us what we are supposed to take as fact without the film ever showing us and letting it unravel.

This all may be as it played out in real life, but that doesn't mean it makes for a compelling film. Here's the trailer:

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