Jun 21, 2007

DVD Review: Breach

Whereas re-watching The Good Shepherd on DVD did more to reaffirm my misgivings about the somewhat uneven film than validate my initial praise, re-watching Breach fully solidified my first reaction. This is a tight, taut, top-notch spy drama anchored by fine performances all around, particularly by Chris Cooper in the showcase role. While there are no major stars in the movie, every part is played by a fantastic character actor like Dennis Haysbert, Laura Linney, Gary Cole and Caroline Dhavernas. I may not have lauded lead actor Ryan Phillippe enough in my first review; while I never would have considered him in the same league as his co-stars, he more than holds his own amidst this intimidating crowd, especially in difficult scenes with Cooper, which can’t have been an easy task. Overall, though, I fully stand by what I wrote when this was in theaters, so rather than revisiting the movie, I’ll focus on the impressive special features the DVD boasts.

Another contrast to The Good Shepherd (also a Universal release, from a few weeks ago), is how many extras they include here. While that was a pretty bare-bones affair, Breach is about as packed as a single disc release can be. And all of the bonus content is good!

If the movie piques your interest in the actual spy played by Cooper, Robert Hanssen (estimated to have caused, as the movie’s tagline puts it, "the greatest security breach in U.S. history"), then the original Dateline story that aired soon after his capture is the first place to go. It seems amazingly informed for being put together just two weeks after Hanssen’s arrest; the FBI must have made public a surprising amount of their case very quickly. In spite of the smug Dateline delivery and random insert shots of roulette wheels to illustrate the high risk of spying, this is a well-constructed bit of TV journalism that offers candid insights into Hanssen’s character. While the movie itself leaves you guessing as to the true motivations of this highly complex man, the agents interviewed reach a consensus. He was "in it for the game, not the gain," one speculates, and another concludes that Hanssen was "trying to commit the intelligence equivalent of the perfect crime." This is an excellent supplement to the main attraction.

"Anatomy of a Character brought to you by Volks-wagen" (yes, DVD features now have sponsors, apparently) offers more speculation on Hanssen’s motives, this time from the actors. It’s strange to see Cooper speaking so openly about the role right after watching the film, since in the movie he’s so reticent! Director Billy Ray says he cast the part by thinking, "Who would I not want to have thinking of me as an idiot?" and came up with Chris Cooper. And it was a great choice. Eric O’Neill, the real life agent Phillippe plays in the film, offers his insights on Hanssen as well, and we see footage of him briefing Cooper on set. (Cooper reveals that he asked O’Neill to do his best Hanssen impression when they first met.)

The same interviewees turn up in "Breaching the Truth," a solid, 10-minute making-of featurette. Some of it is fluff, with the actors singing each others’ praises, but there’s good information here too. Best of all is the opportunity to see how exacting the crew was in recreating the specific locations where the actual events took place.

There’s a very good commentary with Billy Ray and Eric O’Neill. Ray is a good speaker who provides lots of relevant information, but he does have a tendency to cut O’Neill off when he’s about to tell what sounds like an interesting anecdote. On several occasions, O’Neill is about to talk about Hanssen’s religious beliefs, which I would have liked to hear more about. I assume it’s just a coincidence that he never gets to share this. I guess O’Neill is used to being cut off anyway, since he does manage to reveal that Hanssen actually did walk at an angle to drive him and others into walls in the FBI hallway! (I had wondered if this was a touch Cooper added to the character himself.)

O’Neill’s presence on the track is a welcome one, because he fills us in on what’s true and what isn’t. He confirms some of Hanssen’s traits that seem like they could have been made up by screenwriters, like the walking, the constant, bitter complaining about not getting a window office, the hatred of Hillary Clinton and lust for Catherine Zeta Jones, the annoying clicking of his pen, and ordering O’Neill to steal a painting for his office! He sets the record straight on one big issue, though: in real life, O’Neill knew from the start that he was investigating a spy. Ray explains that it was important that he be lied to in the movie by the Laura Linney chracter (who first tells him he’s investigating Hanssen for sexual deviancy) because the whole theme of the film is deception.

Finally, there is a whole slew of deleted and alternate scenes, each with commentary explaining why they were cut or changed. A lot of these are very good scenes, some of which would have added to the film, but overall their reasons for cutting are sound. The best one has Hanssen calling O’Neill while O’Neill is searching his office and berating him for not answering the phone correctly. It generates suspense and comedy (of the boss-from-Hell variety), but Ray felt it was hitting redundant beats. Some of the cut material involving Cooper and Cole would have emphasized that Hanssen was actually good at his job, even if he was condescending and, um, a traitor. One scene goes into more detail about Hanssen’s membership in Opus Dei, and several focus on O’Neill’s wife, Julianna. It’s too bad these were cut because Caroline Dhavernas is wonderful and could have used more screentime. Dhavernas also features prominently in the longest alternate scene, which was completely rewritten in the course of filming and re-shot during pick-ups months later. Usually I find alternate takes a waste of time, but this particular one is a very interesting inclusion as Ray explains why he changed it, and the (sometimes subtle) changes bear him out.

Breach is a terrific spy movie that will undoubtedly come to be regarded as a classic of the genre, and Universal’s special edition DVD does it justice. Highly recommended.

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