* Breach (2007) - Chris Cooper is among this generation’s finest character actors, and he is mesmerizing in Breach, the latest from director Billy Ray (Shattered Glass), a filmmaker whose work as a director has kept my rapt attention thus far. Laura Linney matches Cooper’s performance beat for beat as Ryan Phillippe’s superior, and part of the sheer pleasure of this film is savoring Cooper and Linney at work (along with capable support from vets like Gary Cole, Kathleen Quinlan, Bruce Davison, Dennis Haysbert and others). Only Ryan Phillippe, as FBI agent-to-be Eric O’Neill, treads water at times a bit out of his depth, but he’s believable enough throughout to sustain the mounting claustrophobic intensity of Ray’s now-distinctive (after only two films as director) brand of contemporary historic docudrama, peeling away the layers of deception, self-deception and betrayal central to both Shattered Glass and Breach’s real-life scenarios.
This is a companion piece of sorts to Robert DeNiro’s The Good Shepard, dissecting another corruptive component of the American intelligence community with comparative economy and dramatic precision of effect via its case history of the investigation and arrest of Robert Hanssen (Cooper), who sold state secrets to Russia for almost 37 years. As in the excellent Shattered Glass, director Ray deftly establishes characters, situation, time and place, and quietly applies the thumbscrews. The mundane trappings -- Hanssen’s hell is a prescribed, practically subterranean cavern of cold-lit hallways, parking garages, and the daily destination point of his windowless office -- are sterile, suffocating vacuums, as airless as the terse exchanges that pass for conversation between coworkers who casually cover their furtive, covert existences from one another with studied indifference, even as decades of soul-crushing frustrations, imposed secrecy, perceived slights and veiled retributions gnaw away. The ‘why’ of Hanssen’s monumental betrayal is only hinted at in the visual narrative, and one must watch attentively to catch these clues: his baleful glare at the parking space for the official awarded a position Hanssen felt he’d deserved; the precious few sanctuaries (his car, the confessional booth in church) where Hanssen drops his guard; etc. O’Neill (Phillippe)’s youthful ambition and inexperience pierces the armor with deceptive ease -- this, in part, sustains Phillippe’s performance, neatly calculated by Ray into the texture of the film -- leading to his eventual success as Hanssen’s Judas. The overt Catholic correlations are appropriate, given Hanssen’s devotion to church and scripture, however contrary that piety stands given the context of his actions and various secret lives (many claims are made beyond the treasonous trafficking of intelligence: pornographer, sanctioning the murder of imbedded agents and/or contacts, etc.); this, too, is as timely as any other facet of Breach, given our current troubling fusion of church and state under the ongoing Bush Presidency and GOP reign.
Marge enjoyed this film as much as I did (she did not enjoy The Good Shepard), and Ray’s masterful staging of more traditional but understated suspense setpieces (e.g., O’Neill’s clumsy raid of Hanssen’s office and attempt to cover his tracks is as neatly executed as the silent after-hours bank theft in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Marnie) kept our rapt attention. But it’s Ray’s acute observations of his characters’s situations, plights and interactions under such extraordinary pressure-cookers of deceit and chicanery -- sans the overt melodrama and mayhem necessary to comparable crime narratives like Donnie Brasco or The Departed -- that makes both Shattered Glass and Breach so watchable, memorable and relevant. This is white collar 21st Century noir, and with the notable exception of Michael Mann’s excellent The Insider, no one is doing it better than Billy Ray. Recommended!
* China Blue (2006) - Before its opening titles, director Micha X. Peled tells us the largest human migration in recorded history is occurring now, as “over 130 million Chinese peasants, mostly young women” are leaving their home villages “in search of jobs in the globalized economy.” Here, that means sweatshop labor in the Southern China city of Shaxi, on the Pearl River Delta near Canton. We also meet the documentary’s key focal points: the Lifeng factory owner Mr. Lam, and a trio of displaced teen girls among the “world’s largest pool of cheap labor” manufacturing -- under constant surveillance in indentured, almost prison-like work conditions -- clothes and merchandize for Western venues (mucho denim, hence the title China Blue). Jasmine is a thread-cutter, Li Ping a seamstress, and Orchid, a zipper-installer. In the opening 20 minutes, Peled lays out the principles at work: Mao-era like propaganda songs cloak grueling round-the-clock work hours (from 8 am to 7 pm, overtime kicks in until 2 to 3 am, 7 days a week, for months at a stretch); this supplants their prior country lives completely. Mr. Lam, too, has common roots, which he flaunts: a former collective farm worker and police chief, his embrace of “the New China” has culminated in his thriving on the fusion of capitalism, Chinese work ethic, and exploitative streamlining of manufacturing methodology in which uneducated human labor (particularly female workers, who are “docile and obediant”) remains the cheapest raw material.
Though Lam touts his management style as “relaxed,” he casually considers his workers “20 years behind” and subservient -- hence, interchangeable, disposable, less than himself, however much he claims they are all “equals.” The illusion of fair treatment in corporate eyes is the veneer beneath which these conditions thrive: inspectors from multinational corporations seek only to ease the concerns of consumers, and factory owners ensure these inspections will be given falsified records while real public or media scrutiny is rigorously discouraged and banned by national security laws. Labor unions are outlawed; state-sanctioned “re-education” labor camps await those who complain or organize.
After establishing this, Peled provides some insights into the lives of workers Jasmine, Li Ping and Orchid -- lives lived during the meager ‘sleep times’ and what little time they have for chores and shared living arrangements with other teens and pre-teens. Jasmine writes, fantasizes and rooms with another female worker who is only 14; Orchid pursues as active a social life as possible and has a boyfriend, who also works the factories, making contact fleeting and tenuous even after two years; Li Ping keeps nose to the grindstone and diligently working for Lam, but is still docked two days pay for taking a break from work due to sheer exhaustion. These snapshots are juxtaposed with glimpses of Mr. Lam’s more affluent life, contrasting (for instance) Jasmine’s writing with Mr. Lam’s calligraphic exercises. And so it goes, punctuated with increasingly sobering examples of the “New China” in which Western clients keep factory owners under their thumbs via pressure-cooker deadlines, female children are sent to work under these conditions to subsidize male siblings’ education, wages are paid weeks apart, giggling or any perceived infraction is penalized (docking, or charged against, meager wages), pregnancy rewarded with instant unemployment.
Peled traces the chain of capitalism from all directions; thus, we are afforded a broad understanding of conditions in which ceaseless corporate profits (and imposed low production costs) for the Walmarts of the world are maintained by undercutting any and all international employment standards and at whim cutting, docking or postponing factory worker wages as “necessary.” With cool lucidity of observation and effect and forever mindful of the human toll, China Blue builds its case with cumulative, chilling effect sans overstating the abusive conditions: the reality is heartbreaking enough.