Thursday, March 01, 2007

Breach (2007)

With very little attention and with a good deal of success, writer/director Billy Ray is carving out a respectable niche for himself in the indie film world. Basically if you want to make a movie based on true events about deceit, personal integrity, and slightly sinister, antiseptic workplaces, call Billy Ray. It's good news for all parties; Ray makes enjoyable, intelligent thrillers for selective audiences and doesn't make the terrible, dumb thrillers for doofy audiences he used to write in his salad days (like Color of Night and Volcano, two movies you couldn't get me to watch again without a cash payout of at least four figures).

The similarities between Ray's Shattered Glass and Breach are so numerous and obvious they're not really worth talking about it any detail. Instead, let's consider the ways in which they are different. Both movies have young, pretty boyish protagonists, Hayden Christensen's Stephen Glass, the disgraced journalist who fabricated many of his stories in The New Republic, and Ryan Phillippe's Eric O'Neill, the FBI clerk tasked with uncovering a 'smoking gun' with which to prove agent Robert Hanssen's disloyalty. Though Christensen and Phillippe physically resemble each other so closely they could easily play each other's stunt doubles, there is a crucial difference in their roles: Glass is his movie's villain. O'Neill is his movie's hero.

Both characters have important teacher-student roles; Glass with his boss Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria), O'Neill with Hanssen (played with unique precision by Chris Cooper). But where Shattered Glass presents Glass' elders at The New Republic as saints — Kelly is portrayed as the world's greatest boss and, ultimately, a martyr — Breach shows them to be equally treacherous — even the nominally heroic character played by Laura Linney deceives Phillippe when assigning him to Hanssen, claiming he is being monitored for deviant sexual behavior rather than selling secrets to the Russians. The cumulative effect is to suggest that no one, young or old, is trustworthy which I guess makes Ray maybe the most paranoid filmmaker on the planet. Still, give him credit for picking true stories that validate that view; if he were inventing these movies we could call him a nut. But since they're all based in very real, very scary facts, we have to come to at least identify with Ray's position.

The films also employ differing perspectives although, curiously, the end result is basically the same. Though Sarsgaard's character increasingly becomes Shattered Glass' focus through the film's second half, it tells much of the movie from Glass' own perspective; he gives a narration and he describes to a classroom of schoolchildren (and, indirectly, the audience) the nature of good journalism and the process of writing. In contrast, Breach is told from O'Neill's perspective; all we know about Hanssen is what O'Neill is told about him or actually sees him do (initially, he considers him an ideal human being, since all he sees him do is perform his job ably, go to church regularly, and honor his wife and family). But despite the fact that the Shattered Glass technique initially seems intended to give us perspective into the mind of a liar (while Breach's seems geared to keep the mind of the liar remote), SG's final act brings it in line with Breach: his narration is revealed as as much a fabrication as anything else. There was no classroom and whatever insight we thought we were getting was a big load of horseshit. In both cases: don't trust anything or anyone, looks are deceiving, we all have secrets, even from ourselves.

I've read a few complaints about Breach's title, one reviewer even accused it of being the worst title of the year so far, but I think that takes a superficial view. Breach is an ideal title because it's doesn't simply refer to the obvious one in American intelligence security. The movie is full of breaches, between husbands and wives, between people and their religious backgrounds, between who we think people are and who they really are.

I liked Breach but I'd also have liked it more if it had distanced itself even further from Shattered Glass. It does kind of feel like a retread at times. Ray needs to distinguish his pictures more, from the others in their genre as much as from the others he's made. The score is totally nondescript when it isn't improperly sentimental, the editing could be sharper and there isn't a single memorable element of the cinematography beyond its lack of memorable qualities (which probably has to do with Ray's aforementioned love of turning really bland workspaces into worlds of miniaturized terror). It's solid, more solid than glass I guess, but not as unbreakable as, say, a diamond.

Labels: , ,


Blogger Reel Fanatic said...

Ray's Shattered Glass is a movie I just fell in love with, but I've somehow missed out on Breach so far ... Since I have to see Zodiac and Black Snake Moan this weekend, it may just have to wait for DVD

5:29 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home