"Breach" is a chilling tale, based on actual
events, of an FBI agent convicted of selling secrets to the
wasn't during the Cold War era.
This was 1991, when our country's relationship with the
former Soviet Union was supposed to be "glasnost."
But we've had a spy network since before we were
officially a nation---George Washington relied heavily on his
"intelligence community" during the field
maneuverings of the Revolutionary War---and we still routinely
spy on other countries with whom we are theoretically at
peace. Most of us
just don't know the extent of our network of
we never will. But
some of us have attained some access, and some of us have
abused the privilege.
In the movie
"Breach," Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper) is rude,
mean, irascible, and condescending.
And that's on his good days.
A young, ambitious trainee, Eric O'Neill (Ryan
Phillippe) is asked by his "big boss" (Laura Linney)
if he will agree to be Hanssen's new Clerk, and to keep an eye
on Hanssen, because he's suspected of trafficking pornography.
O'Neill accepts the difficult assignment because he
wants so badly to make "agent."
But he's constantly surprised by his interaction with
first day, it's not "Good Morning," but "Tell
me five things about yourself, and make one of them a lie, and
I'll tell you which one."
Hanssen brusquely informs his new clerk that he is to
be addressed not by his name, but "Sir," or
first time O'Neill attempts to snoop around Hanssen's office
while he's out, Hanssen
discovers something out of place, and warns O'Neill, "The
next time I catch you in my office while I'm gone, I'll hurt
you so much you'll bleed from the inside."
So far, so good.
But a funny
thing happens on the way to a fledgling career in espionage.
O'Neill begins to develop a grudging respect for
the prickly exterior, here's a man who is enormously bright
and unabashedly devout; an apparently devoted husband and
doting grandfather. He
expresses an interest in O'Neill's personal life, and insists
on inviting the young couple over to the house for dinner, and
one weekend evening, he and his wife "surprise" the
startled young couple by bringing a home cooked dinner to
their apartment. Hanssen
appears to want to befriend O'Neill, and to be his mentor.
He speaks of the importance of personal prayer, even
taking him to early Mass with him, and lectures him on how
critical it is that his wife convert to Catholicism (she's an
East German immigrant with no religious upbringing). Hanssen
says that his own conversion, from being a "lapsed
Lutheran," was the greatest thing that ever happened to
him. At work,
Hanssen shows O'Neill about asking forgiveness before
permission (thus requisitioning new computers by simply
snatching them from a stack in the hallway), lectures him
about the significance of ongoing training in firearms, and
instructs him about the subtle machinations of internal power
doesn't know what to think.
Since he hasn't seen any evidence of the alleged
pornography, he decides to confront the "big boss,"
who has been insisting on daily diary briefings, "no
detail too insignificant." Now O'Neill is told the truth:
Hanssen is actually suspected of selling secrets to the
is an enormous task group of more than fifty agents dedicated
to catching him red-handed, and O'Neill is an important
first-hand source. His
daily diary briefings are even read by the Director himself.
O'Neill is flabbergasted.
But the "big boss" says that the personal
loyalty he has developed with Hanssen will actually help them
in their investigation, as long as O'Neill is still willing to
be a "snoop"--including surreptitiously downloading
the contents of his mentor's palm pilot.
O'Neill thinks he can handle this, but the personal
strain is starting to show, including in his new marriage.
His wife Juliana senses the tension and the emotional
distance of keeping secrets and frequent absences, but he just
can't tell her everything.
And he wonders if he's good enough to play this risky
is about a young man's struggles with his conscience and
ambition, and an older man's struggles with his
disappointments and failures.
"Breach" is about the resources that a
government can wield both to spy on others and to spy on
is about sorting out conflicting loyalties, and ultimately
about deciding who you are, regardless of what others may
expect of you.
And at the end, after he's caught, Hanssen looks at
O'Neill and simply says, "Pray for me."
And how could a true believer do otherwise?
Questions For Discussion:
What should the punishment be for treason?
Have you ever known deep faith to reside in a person
that is also currently committing criminal acts?
Is there necessarily a contradiction?
Have you ever been in a position to "blow the
whistle" on a superior?
How did you decide what to do?
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen,
First Presbyterian Church, Terrell, Texas