Movie review: A prisoner of his own mind

  • February 18, 2007
breach2The worst thing you can say about a religion is that it is a self-imposed prison of the mind — an identity of limits that deforms the human soul.

Breach shows us just what bad religion looks like, and why it is dangerous.

The movie is based on the true story of Opus Dei member and FBI intelligence analyst Robert Hanssen. Hanssen sold more intelligence information to the Russians than any other spy or double agent in U.S. history. He was responsible for the deaths of several Russian officials who were co-operating with the American intelligence community, but the full extent of the damage he did to U.S. interests has mostly been kept secret.

Arrested in 2001, Hanssen is now serving a life sentence in solitary confinement.

Through the lens of his peculiar, largely artificial and angry version of Catholic tradition and devotion, Breach portrays Hanssen’s final end in a maximum security prison as destiny — the perfect expression of his character.

When the FBI learns what Hanssen has been doing for 20 years, senior management assigns ambitious young officer Eric O’Neill to pretend to be Hanssen’s clerk and driver. O’Neill at first is only told that Hanssen has been sharing homemade pornography on the Internet and is a potential embarrassment to the bureau. He is to keep a diary of Hanssen’s daily activities and pass it along to agent Kate Burroughs.

Expecting a sexual deviant, O’Neill discovers his new boss lives inside the mindset of restorationist, anti-modern, Latin-rite Catholicism. He goes to church every day. He is devoted to his family and lives a personally austere life. He works very hard. He is acerbic, paranoid and bitter about every slight he has ever suffered at the hands of FBI management.

O’Neill begins to wonder why so much effort is being put into prosecuting a man two months away from retirement over an embarrassment. He also begins to have his own Catholic identity challenged by Hanssen, who may be rigid and angry but is also a loyal, sincere Catholic who makes genuine sacrifices for his faith.

When Hanssen tells O’Neill “God expects you to live your faith at all times,” it’s more than a truism from the catechism. He is voicing a paranoid image of God as the ultimate spy on His human subjects.

Hanssen’s image of God is also meant to tell us something about the kind of place America has become under U.S. President George Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft — both Evangelical fundamentalists. The movie is shot in all the dullest, coldest precincts of concrete government buildings in Washington, under permanent cloud cover outside and washed in milky fluorescent light inside.

The opening sequence has O’Neill spying on an immigrant, Arabic couple having a quarrel outside their apartment building. The couple are “targets.” O’Neill doesn’t know why he is shooting clandestine photographs of them and gathering a file on their movements. He is just part of the machinery of national security, which must be fed with files and dossiers on the lives of those unfamiliar and misunderstood.

If O’Neill does well in this task he can move up the ladder to become an agent for the FBI, and live up to his family’s tradition of service to his country.

By the end of the film, O’Neill has decided that Hanssen is the natural product of the FBI and the whole national security mindset that goes with it. Hanssen’s parallel lives spent betraying the United States and his rigid faith are the inevitable result of an imprisoned mind.

Hanssen betrays his wife and his religious convictions by planting secret cameras in his bedroom and then mailing video tapes of himself having sex with her to strangers around the world. He betrays his country by selling similar brown manilla envelopes full of intelligence secrets for relatively small amounts of cash to unseen Russian agents. It seems the imprisoned mind must forge a breach in the prison wall — a sin of equal and opposite effect to the commandments of church and state.

In the end, O’Neill steps back. That’s not how he will live his life.

Director Billy Ray has constructed a thoroughly enveloping world which deftly parallels Hanssen and the FBI’s paranoia. Ryan Phillippe’s performance as O’Neill would be impressive if it were not overshadowed by Laura Linney as agent Burroughs and Chris Cooper as Hanssen. Cooper seems to be channeling all the damned of Dante’s Inferno into the 21st century through Hanssen’s eyes.

At the end of the movie, on a downward elevator wearing handcuffs, Hanssen looks at the audience in those red-rimmed eyes and commands us to “Pray for me.” It is always our responsibility to pray for the imprisoned, including those imprisoned in their own minds.

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