Defending the 12th century since the 14th; blogging since the 21st.

Catholicism, Conservatism, the Middle Ages, Opera, and Historical and Literary Objets d'Art blogged by a suburban dad who teaches law and writes stuff.

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Who was Cacciaguida? See Dante's PARADISO, Cantos XV, XVI, & XVII.

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Sunday, March 11, 2007


But first -- Conversation chez many places:

SOME DUDE: Have you seen Breach?

CACCIAGUIDA: No, but I knew Bob Hanssen.

Making people's jaws drop like Marley's gets old after a while, so I went to see the picture. It's excellent. Chris Cooper's resemblance to Bob is not particularly close, but it's a superb performance. (If you are among those who find the grin in the real Hanssen's picture to be something out of the ordinary in the s___-eating department, the scene in the movie where he has to submit to a session with a Bureau photographer may give an insight.)

"You always remember where you were when you heard about...." Yes, the Kennedy assassination, 9/11.... For me, add Hanssen's arrest to that list. I was glancing at my Wall Street Journal on the morning of Monday, Feb. 19, 2001, on the way into may office. What made my heart hit my loafers was the double s in the name. That's an uncommon spelling: most Hansens use only one. I stood there like a moron for about a minute counting and recounting those s's, and then I tore open the paper, hoping against hope that I wouldn't find there the one name that would confirm that this was that Robert Hanssen -- the name Bonnie, his adoring and betrayed wife. And of course I found it.

But enough about me, let's talk about my views on the movie.

"Nothing happened to me, Eric. I happened."

No, that line based on Silence of the Lambs is not in Breach. But the narratology that the line represents -- the refusal to write off all evil conduct as the result of trauma or bad upbringing -- is very much in evidence in Breach. Sure, there's a reference to Hanssen's dad being "demanding," but there's so much else in the mix; pride, above all.

My greatest apprehension was that the movie would try to answser the "why" question, which, I can assure you, no one can answer except those who can't say, and for all I know even they may be left guessing. The movie leaves Hanssen's inner psyche a mystery. At one point near the end we see him in the confessional, in anguish, but we can't hear what he's saying, partly because it's part of an awesome montage that cuts between the confessional and the Bureau's preparations for arresting Hanssen on his last drop.

The movie's only speculative tendency -- and it strikes me as a reasonable one, not to mention dramatically effective -- is that Hanssen may have been anticipating, even desiring, a spectacular crashing end to his traitorous endeavors. He talks early on about "it" all being over soon: does he mean his tenure at the FBI (he's nearing retirment age, after all), or does he have a darker meaning? When the heavily armed agents pours out of the minivan after Hanssen's last drop, shouting "FBI! Freeze!", he seems to be expecting it, and calmly repeats with his hands up, "Guns will not be necessary. Guns will not be necessary."

Is the movie anti-Catholic? I think I'm as sensitive to anti-Catholicism as most, and more than many, and I did not think it was. Hanssen's faith, and the concomitant impulse it gives him to be apostolic towards friends and acquaintances, is so real that Eric O'Neill can use it at one point as a way to buy time while agents search Hanssen's car. (Complicated to describe, but it's the scene on the GW Parkway approaching the Arlington Mem. Bridge.)

That, plus the very end -- Hanssen's only moment of pellucid honesty -- makes clear that his faith is real, and Eric's response suggests that his own may be rekindlable.

I suppose some viewers come out saying gosh how hypocritical those Catholics are: here this Hanssen guy reproves O'Neill near the beginning of the picture for scoping a chick in the elevator, then, near the end, he invites him around the desk to glance at some porn Hanssen is watching on his laptop. But, quite apart from the fact that Hanssen is clearly "cracking" near the end, the point of this disjunction is plainly that Hanssen experiences deep spiritual turmoil -- as we all do.

The world is not in fact divided between the pure and the impure (or take any other matched set of a virtue and its corresponding vice): it's made up of impure people who acknowledge the obligations of purity and try to meet them, and impure people who don't.

I suppose it's also made up of prideful people who betray their country and its agents to a deadly enemy, and prideful people whose pride finds less dire outlets. But -- and I suppose this takes us as close as we can get to a "lesson" from the Hanssen business -- even someone who knows perfectly well that he should exercise custody of sight when a gorgeous number enters an elevator may find himself losing that custody in ways that would surprise his friends. And even someone who knows that monumental and lethal treason is just not the thing may find himself, ultimately, in a prison jumpsuit soliciting the prayers of the man who caught him dropping off vital information for his Russian handlers.

Let's not underestimate the mystery of iniquity, or overrate our assumed immunity. "Are your doors lock'd?"

Back to the movie. Of course even scrupulous research cannot render filmmakers error-free on the subject of the non-happy-clappy piety practised in the Hanssen home (as in mine). When the Hanssens come over uninvited bringing dinner to Eric and his young wife, they say grace over the dinner -- and they hold hands. 'Nuh uh. *Buzzer.* *Gong.* Wouldn't happen. Director Billy Ray's point may have been that Hanssen was creepily glad to get a moment's kino with the beautiful young Mrs. O'Neill. But still -- wouldn't happen.

I have one serious criticism to make: the "resolution" scenes establish that the O'Neills' endangered marriage is back on track, which is great; but we get no further references of any kind to Bonnie. Those in charge of Bob's punishment never breathed a word against Bonnie's conduct. Moreover, I know at one remove that this has been for her a cross that the rest of us cannot imagine. She did not know about the continuing espionage, and she didn't know about those tapes: try to imagine a personal betrayal of that nature and magnitude....

Anyway. Good movie about an important page in American history, and a good probe of the depths to which pride can lead us, unless our pride is so immense that we think it can't, in which case it's even more likely that it will....

EDITED TO ADD: Amy Welborn has an excellent review here, with a kind link back to me. Several of her commenters add well-considered points of praise for the film. E.g., one does indeed get a chuckle out of Billy Ray's notion that all Catholic churches are either creeky High Gothic or gleaming Roman Baroque. I could go for that, but I could also settle for the actual chapel of the Catholic Information Center in DC: modern, but with significant Roman Baroque influence, and creek-free.

Also, an excellent review here:
It's to [director Billy] Ray's massive credit that he can turn a true-life arrest, in which the ending was widely reported, into a picture of staggering suspense. The anxiety is found in the little moments: will Eric be able to stall Robert long enough for information to be harvested? Does Robert understand the extent of the deception to catch him? Ray ("Shattered Glass") maintains the film's simmer even through the most obvious ploys at keeping the audience at the edge of their seats. Heavens, this is a film about two guys in suits talking for 110 minutes. How could there be such tension? "Breach" is something of a cinematic miracle in the way it uses silence as a deadly weapon.