‘Breach’ is a chilling tale, based on actual events, of an FBI agent convicted of selling secrets to the Soviets.
No, it 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 ‘operatives.’ And 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 Hanssen. The 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 ‘Boss.’ The 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 Hanssen. Beyond 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 instead of 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 plays.
Now O’Neill 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 Russians. There 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 counterintuitive game.
Breach’ 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 itself. ‘Breach’ 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:
1) What should the punishment be for treason?
2) Have you ever known deep faith to reside in a person that is also currently committing criminal acts? Is there necessarily a contradiction?
3) Have you ever been in a position to ‘blow the whistle’ on a superior? How did you decide what to do?
Ron Salfen is pastor of First Church, Terrell, Texas.