The Cold War still makes for good films

Finweek English Edition - - Openers - BY FRIK ELS frike@fin­

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.

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