In the film industry, January and February are notoriously bad times for movies. After the Christmas holidays, too late to be eligible for the upcoming Oscars® and too far away from the next year's Oscars® for the Academy to remember them, the studios have a tendency to use the winter months as a dumping ground for bad movies that they don't expect to make much money.
But then, the trailer for the spy thriller Breach that is opening this weekend looked good. Confusing, right? So I mentioned that to Breach's writer/director, Billy Ray during our interview at the junket.
"That mentality has really got to stop. Because this idea that you release all your serious movies in fall when they just steamroll over each other--so some good ones can actually get missed--is so stupid. And then the idea that you can't get an Academy Award out of a movie that is released in February is ridiculous," said Ray. "Silence of the Lambs--go check out the release date of that. January. And 10 months later people still remember it. Because it's good." Silence of the Lambs, by the way, won in all five major Oscar® categories.
Maybe then the exception to the January/February rule is thrillers set in the FBI, because, like that Oscar®-winning tale of Agent Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lechter, I am happy to say that Breach is another good winter release. It is based on the true story of Eric O'Neil (Ryan Phillippe), a young FBI agent-in-training who was selected by the agency to help break the case of Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper), the worst spy in US history. Eager to ascend the ranks, O'Neill is plucked out of his low-level surveillance job by Agent Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney) to be the assistant to Special Agent Hanssen at FBI headquarters. O'Neill is initially under the impression that the FBI wants him to watch Hanssen because he is a sexual predator, but he soon discovers that his assignment much more complicated than that. The FBI suspects Hanssen of having leaked secrets to the Russians for over two decades, and is actually using O'Neill to build a case against him.
In reality, I suspect that Universal decided to release Breach during this time of year because Billy Ray doesn't have a box office track record behind him. Although he's written some fairly big movies (Hart's War, Flightplan), his previous directing effort--a well-received, but very small movie called Shattered Glass--grossed less than $3 million worldwide. Stephen Spielberg wouldn't get a pedicure for that sum.
But box office isn't necessarily a predictor of talent, because Billy Ray has the thriller genre down cold. Breach is subtle, intense, and shows a great understanding of what a movie like this should be. Thriller dialogue is often quite to the point ("Franko is going to blow up the biocubonator in 35 seconds." "Go down the airshaft, I'll met you there."), and can easily get too big and, well, Hollywood-y if not handled delicately. But Ray's light touch allows him to maintain a perfect tone.
The heavy, slate-gray winter skies of the outside shots echo the barren office in which O'Neill is trapped with Hanssen day after day. And although Ray would never admit he filmed it this way on purpose (Ray says he filmed during the winter to match the actual time period of the real events), the cold sterility of the setting adds to the tension in the building struggle between the two men.
Academy Award winner Cooper (Adaptation, American Beauty) is terrific as Hanssen, the maddeningly inappropriate, bullying, hypocritical FBI operative who was eventually convicted of treason against America. And Phillippe (Flags of Our Fathers, Crash) definitely holds his own. Not only is he an easy hero for the audience to identify with, but he also is believable going toe to toe with Hanssen as he gets drawn deeper and deeper into the peculiar relationship they develop as he tries to get Hanssen to blow his cover.
Ultimately, Breach does a great job of dramatizing a real-life spy situation for the screen. It is smart, engaging, moves well, and even manages a few laughs to break the tension here and there. True to Ray's word, Breach proves that you don't need lots of flashy explosions to make a thriller good, just a strong story.
Check out reelz.com's Breach page for clips from the film and more!