“I matter plenty.”
July 12, 2014 by Thomas Wictor
My perception of art keeps changing. Movies are especially vulnerable to my reinterpretation. Films I once loved I now hate, and those that I still like are sending me entirely different messages. The brilliant film Breach is up there in my top ten. I hadn’t seen it in a while, so when I watched it earlier today, I was shocked at how I reacted to it. Sometimes I wonder if screenwriters, directors, and actors know at the time how profound their project is. Today I learned the three-word rationalization for why people betray trust: “I matter plenty.”
The reason I watched Breach again was because a few hours ago I had the worst rotational vertigo attack since 2011. I have to get back to the discipline I showed before my parents got sick and died. It’s time. I’ve lost all my gains, so unless I want to spend the rest of my life in a spin dryer, projectile vomiting, I have to simply pick up where I left off on January 16, 2013.
Lying on the sofa, I watched Breach, and it was a revelation. The movie is about Robert Hanssen, the worst spy in American history. He was an FBI agent who worked for the Soviet Union and then Russia for twenty-two years.
The first time I saw the film a couple of years ago, I was struck by Chris Cooper’s mastery. I knew who Cooper was, but I had no idea that he was capable of such a stunning creation as his version of Robert Hanssen.
His performance should be studied by all actors who take their craft seriously. It’s up there with Orson Welles’s Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil, one of the greatest films ever made.
Everybody in Breach is perfect, but I want to talk about Cooper’s unmatched genius in presenting the psychology of the betrayer, a person who cares nothing about the terrible damage he does to others.
Hanssen was a devout Catholic who attended Mass daily, but he also drank heavily, frequented strip clubs, videotaped himself and his wife having sex, shared the tapes with a friend, allowed the friend to watch the sexual encounters through the window, and went on Internet chat rooms to describe his sex life in such detail that acquaintances would’ve recognized the couple being discussed.
All his churchiness was fake. The real man was the betrayer. There’s no such thing as a conflicted, guilt-stricken, tortured soul haunted by his compulsiveness. I now believe that betrayers and leaders of secret lives do exactly what they want because they care about nobody in the world except themselves. They blubber with maudlin self-pity, but they actually have no hearts.
In a park at night, FBI Field Operative Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe) confronts Hanssen—a rigid, abusive, sour, sanctimonious, intrusive weirdo who rejects all social conventions and boundaries because he feels above them.
“Look around you, boss,” O’Neill shouts. “It’s just us out here. Nobody’s tailing you, there isn’t any GPS on your car, and I’m not a foreign agent trying to work you. You don’t matter that much.”
O’Neill then goes on to explain why it’s so hard to work with Hanssen. He speaks for a full minute without stopping, hitting his boss with every single fault that the man has. When O’Neill finishes, Hanssen walks right up into his face.
“I…matter…plenty,” he hisses.
And I realized this is the main motivation of betrayers: the pathological need to prove that they matter. Hanssen heard nothing else in O’Neill’s one-minute diatribe.
It’s no secret that Hanssen was arrested, so this isn’t a spoiler. As Agent Burroughs (Laura Linney) watches surveillance video of her colleague being taken into custody, she looks like this.
That’s how I felt too, the first time I saw the film. My reaction this time around wasn’t pain or sorrow at the terrible choices this man had made.
The Portuguese practice a martial art called Jogo do Pau or “game of sticks.”
In World War One, the Portuguese Expeditionary Force was comprised of men adept in Jogo do Pau and who were expert knife fighters. They excelled at silent, murderous trench raiding. When I watched Breach today, I felt like this Portuguese trench raider.
No sadness in that man’s face. Chris Cooper reveals why this time around I had no sympathy for him whatsoever. He’s in a discussion with Agent Plesac (Dennis Haysbert).
Hanssen: All [Aldrich] Ames cared about was the money.
Plesac: Why else would he have done it?
Hanssen: Well, it’s not so hard to guess, is it, considering the human ego? Can you imagine sitting in a room with a bunch of your colleagues, everybody trying to guess the identity of a mole, and all the while it’s you they’re after, you they’re looking for. That must be…very satisfying, wouldn’t you think?
Cooper says it with a cringing little smirk. It’s another eerie, unerring portrayal of the second toxin that motivates betrayers and those who live secret lives. They get off on fooling those closest to them. It makes them think they’re smarter than everyone else.
There’s nothing quite like the realization that it was all a game. Everything was fake. The fact that you were just a prop in somebody’s cheap little script never even occurred to you. When you finally accept the truth, you’re never the same again. Part of you has died.
“Pray for me,” Hanssen begs.
No. Absolutely not.
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