Friday, August 3, 2007

"Breach" is not anti-Catholic (well, I don't think so, anyway...)

A couple of weeks ago, I rented and watched the movie "Breach." It is based on the true story of an infamous American traitor, Robert Hannsen, who as an FBI agent sold information to the Soviets/Russians until his arrest in 2001. He is now serving a life sentence with no parole at the Supermax in Colorado.

The movie is "based" on the real story and so I know there are quite a few liberties taken but all in all it followed the main thread of history. I've heard that a lot of folks disappointed with the film thought they were going to watch some sort of spy mystery-- I suppose the same folks left "Titanic" shocked that the ship went down... Anyway, I did enjoy the movie, although I am having some trouble sorting out my feelings concerning the role of the Catholic Faith played in it (and in real life).

Hannsen was (is?) a member of Opus Dei, as is a lot of his family. He apparently led a fairly strict prayer life and projected this overtly to coworkers. He was (is?) also a pretty egregious sexual pervert. These aspects were all central to the screenplay of "Breach." Hannsen was essentially taken down by Eric O'Neill, a young FBI analyst who is also portrayed as a Catholic man (although I haven't yet found as much info about his real life...).

Here is my dilemma: I found myself feeling sympathetic to Hannsen, even though I knew the Titanic sunk and I knew Hannsen was a traitor. As the movie unfolded, O'Neill questions his superiors about why Hannsen is a target, because they've told him that Hannsen is being watched due to his perversions and unacceptable chat room activities. However, Hannsen behaves as a very strict and orthodox Catholic, with icons decorating his office (including a Crucifix on the wall that he would pray at daily). There is no evidence of any perversion. Hannsen chides O'Neill for ogling attractive female coworkers and challenges him to attend Mass and bring his non-Catholic wife along as well. It's clear that until more information comes his way, O'Neill begins to admire Hannsen and thinks Hannsen is getting a raw deal. Midway through the film, I agreed.

Then it all came crashing down on both O'Neill and me. The FBI revealed that Hannsen was really being investigated for selling secrets to the Reds-- BUT, by the way, the bit about sexual perversions was still true, and late in the movie this is demonstrated in a really icky way. Well, of course Hannsen was a despicable man who betrayed his country and his faith in several ways.

Until I read a little more about the real Robert Hannsen, I honestly thought that his projection of Catholic faith was part of a "cover" that he used to look squeaky clean while doing the traitor and pervert things. Not true-- in real life Hannsen IS an outwardly strict Catholic as I mentioned above, but having done these very bad things. And yet I still feel positive about the "good Catholic" part of Hannsen from the movie scenes in which he preached the right orthodoxy about the Faith. I suppose I was taken in by him, like a lot of people were for two decades and in many ways.

I don't have any deeper thoughts than this to share, but I would be interested to hear from anyone else who's seen this movie. We're all used to seeing Catholics portrayed in their most "flawed" state in the movies. Here is another example, but it turns out it's all true in the case of Robert Hannsen in "Breach."


Laura The Crazy Mama said...

I didn't see the movie, but I read one of the first biographies that came out about him when he first became known to the public and after his conviction. He just seemed to me to be a real jerk. One of those "can't practice what he preaches" kind of guys. When a person presents themselves as the model of piety, I always have suspicions and this story is one of the reasons why. He was so deeply involved in his Church and in Opus Dei that one would think that he would actually put some of those standards into practice (and it's doubly scandalous because of the way he presented himself to be, especially for Opus Dei and his poor family) he really did lead a double life and was so convinced that he was the smartest man ever, that he genuinely thought he'd get away with it. I'm pretty sure the movie took MAJOR liberties with the story because it doesn't sound much like the biography or the news stories about the subject. I don't feel sorry for him at all. Maybe I'm just mean, but I can't believe someone would do that to their family who trusted him so innocently and to their country. I put my pity in his family, his co-workers, and all of us whom he betrayed for his own, selfish reasons. The story brought two things to mind for me. One was that whenever someone acts super pious and lectures people on how they ought to be with no charity in their lecturing, I am very suspicious that they do creapy things in their private lives (I have actually confirmed that one with some people-yuck). Second is that I am mindful to NOT wear my faith so much on my sleeve (like making sure my scapular is sticking out just a teeny bit, or wearing a huge crucifix, or going around shaking everyone's hand before and after Mass like I own the place) and try to actually live a good, sacred, interior life that will radiate outward into the world. Oh, I try. That doesn't mean I always succeed! The movie sounds interesting, but the story itself left such an icky taste in my mouth, the less I ever hear about that Robert Hannsen guy, the better (guess I'd better pray for him, then, huh? That would be the nice thing to do, but it sure is hard when you resent someone so much, isn't it? Whew, lots of lessons in his story!).

Laura The Crazy Mama said...

Oh, the book I read was The Spy Who Stayed Out In The Cold (2002). Before that, I had first heard of him from an article in the Reader's Digest. I was intrigued by the mention of Opus Dei and what that was all about.

Serviam! said...

It’s my opinion that the only reason Hollywood displayed Robert Hanssen’s Catholic faith so strongly (I think it’s more of a caricature than reality) in the first part of the movie, was to contrast it with his dark side and bring out the “hypocrisy” of Catholicism. The movie isn’t honest in how it reveals the “who” of Hanssen. By only showing us one side of him in the beginning, and then the other side at the end, the creators of the movie loose credibility. They try to artificially create a type of main character who sells movies.

The good who become evil like Judas, and the evil who become good like Paul is the stuff that sells movies. Hanssen was a man who from the beginning had both in him, what kind of struggle that went on internally I guess we’ll never know, but I do know the man is getting punished more mercifully than he would if the Russians would have caught him doing the same.

Unfortunately, due to our weakened will and a darkened intellect, many of us are are to some degree like Robert Hanssen; varying not so much in kind, but in degree (in a BIG way here).

Jesus speaks of people like Robert Hanssen in Matthew’s Gospel (Mt 23:25-28):

"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of plunder and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee, cleanse first the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may be clean. "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men's bones and every kind of filth. Even so, on the outside you appear righteous, but inside you are filled with hypocrisy and evildoing.”

No doubt, the Pharisees Jesus was speaking of were seen by others as “good” Jews, observing all the Torah called for externally. But Jesus’ message was that it would be a mistake to think that externally following all 613 commands the Torah called for showed a person to be good. The outside of Robert Hanssen’s cup was squeaky clean, while the inside was filthy.

It is so ironic, and so sad, that Robert Hanssen was a member of Opus Dei. One of Opus Dei’s most important precepts is to clean the outside as well as the inside of the “cup”. And members of Opus Dei will go to lengths to avoid overly pious “shows”, their emphasis is interior holiness.

You usually hear people screaming about Opus Dei being too controlling of its members, in this case people scream that they weren’t controlling enough. The fact of the matter is that Robert Hanssen’s problem isn’t found in being a member of Opus Dei, but being a greedy, deceitful, self-centered member of the human race who chose the easy path of “self” over one of courage, faith, and sacrifice.

Joshua 24:15 said...

Thanks for your comments folks. I thought Hannsen's actions were presented in the film in a way that allowed me to share the feeling of betrayal. I didn't think they were dumping on the Church or setting it up-- but I suppose if you didn't know about Catholicism, or if you were already prejudiced against it, the movie could have had that sort of effect. Hollywood certainly does that whenever possible.

Joshua 24:15 said...

Hey, just to compare our views here with another example:
"Murder She Wrote" was on the TV this afternoon. (Not my choice so don't get me started, I'm not a fan of 80's quasi-mystery shows...) Anyway, the episode was "Seal of the Confessional." Within 60 seconds the young hip priest had completely botched Reconciliation with the parishioner, including chasing her out of the confessional yelling for her because she broke down and couldn't finish the confession of a murder. Then a little later, the priest went to Jessica to get some advice (naturally). He staunchly refuses to tell her who the killer is (from the confession) but happily agreed to tell her who DIDN'T do it!

So, it's everywhere...