The Cold War still makes for good films
GET READY FOR sequel stupor this winter. Spiderman’s back, and in box office terms at least he’s shown that he’s much stronger than Batman or Superman. The ridiculously successful and ridiculously camp Pirates of the Caribbean also returns, and so does Shrek (respectively the second and third highest grossing films of all time). There’s a Die Hard 4 and an Ocean’s 13 and third time around Jason Bourne is giving an ultimatum.
Even the franchises that showed most promise early on have deteriorated into formulaic yawn fests. (At last. I’ve always wanted to use “yawn fest”. It’s my favourite oxymoron after “Zim democracy”.)
Although James Bond is back in the Secret Service after years working for what looked like PlayStation, solid and serious spy-versus-spy films are still difficult to find. Apart from the odd jewel like Syriana (do yourself a favour and rent the DVD) you have to go back a few decades to The Ipcress File, The Eiger Sanction or the The Quiller Memorandum for espionage and sabotage with real superpowers.
I’ve always enjoyed the naming convention of the old films and books but The Hoax E-mail just doesn’t sound like an authentic spy story to me. Then again, neither did the Phosa-Ramaphosa-Sexwale Plot to Assassinate the President have much of a ring to it. (For those who may have forgotten, that episode of the longrunning serial, The Mbeki Presidency, flighted in 2001.)
Which bring me to The Els Suggestion: Breach. The film, which opens this Friday, tells the true story of FBI Special Agent Robert Hanssen, responsible for the greatest security breach in US history. Over a period of 22 years Hanssen sold thousands of pages of classified information to Russia during and after the Cold War.
A team of more than 500 FBI sleuths spent years trying to catch him and only did so months before 11 September 2001. Interestingly, one of the secrets he sold was where and how the US President would be relocated in the event of a terrorist attack. George W Bush was widely criticised for being missing in action for hours after the Twin Towers were struck, so perhaps a new emergency plan hadn’t yet been put in place. And with relations between Russia and the West reaching a post Cold War nadir thanks to Vladimir Putin’s oil and gas, Breach doesn’t appear so outdated.
Hanssen is played by Chris Cooper, whose portrayal of the abusive father in American Beauty was one of the best things in an overall great film. In Breach Cooper pulls off a remarkable feat by making Hanssen both avuncular and creepy (very creepy).
He’s no match for Cooper, but Ryan Phillipe is credible as Eric O’Neil, an agent in training sent to spy on Hanssen. The relationship between the two – O’Neil doesn’t have the full picture and thinks he’s there to uncover Hanssen’s “sexual deviance”– supplies the tension that, despite knowing the outcome of the story, Breach has plenty of.
Director Billy Ray doesn’t go for grand gestures, plot contrivance or dramatic visual style. There are no car chases or shootouts in Breach and, best of all, the director never underestimates the intelligence of the audience. And there are just too few films around these days that don’t.