Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Media Watch
Movies from A to Z: ‘Amazing Grace,’ Breach, ‘Zodiac’

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

(From the March 22, 2007 edition of the Inland Register)

Movie Reviews

From the beginning of the film Breach you know that F.B.I counterintelligence agent Robert Philip Hanssen will be captured as the most damaging American spy in our history. Hanssen, played with a certain wary creepiness by the wonderful actor Chris Cooper, dominates the film. But we expect that from Cooper. The surprise in the film is how strongly Ryan Phillippe plays the young agent-in-training Eric O’Neill, who is assigned to work for Hanssen. Phillippe gives the role an understated intensity that makes the movie work as a cat-and-mouse adventure.

At first O’Neill is not told that his eventual task is to find a way for the Bureau to catch Hanssen in the actual act of dropping off classified materials in a D.C. nature preserve for the Russians to pick up.

One of the fascinating parts of the story, directed by Billy Ray, is the Roman Catholic subtext. Hanssen is a very conservative Opus Dei Catholic who wears his Catholicism on his sleeve. The film tries to give us an inside view as Hanssen pulls his young associate into his world of Latin Masses and devotions. Hanssen and his wife, played by Kathleen Quinlan, even try to convert O’Neill’s wife, who is Lutheran and, ironically, originally from East Germany.

Laura Linney plays O’Neill’s F.B.I, boss in a role that doesn’t give her too much to do.

The intensity of the film builds as we move toward the climax of Hanssen’s eventual capture. One of the most striking scenes takes place as the F.B.I has taken Hanssen’s car apart while O’Neill is supposed to keep Hanssen busy getting his formal picture taken as a sign of his service to the Bureau. Hanssen gets angry and walks out. O’Neill has to stall him from getting back too soon to the Bureau headquarters and finding his car missing. The result is purposefully getting stuck in a traffic jam. Hanssen gets so angry at O’Neill he leaves the car and seeks to walk back. O’Neill begs him to stay in the car and stop at the Catholic Information Center where O’Neill wants him to help pick out some religious books. The acting of both actors is terrific.

For me, it was difficult to understand why Hanssen begins to break down toward the end of the film. We see him going to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but we don’t know what is happening to him inside that allows him to let down his guard. The confrontation with O’Neil in a D.C. park is acting at its best.

You never really find an answer to the dichotomy between Hanssen’s seemingly sincere faith and his actions that result in the death of several American spies and danger to countless others.

But the film is a thriller of great depth that is well worth seeing.

Breach is rated by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) as PG-13 because of violence, sexual content and language. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office for Film and Broadcasting rates the film as A-III – for adults.


This coming Sunday, March 25, is the 200th anniversary of the end of British participation in the slave trade. There is a wonderful new movie that portrays the 20-year battle in Parliament to bring about that end. The film is titled Amazing Grace, after the famous hymn by former slave trader John Newton.

In the saints’ calendar of the Anglican Church, William Wilberforce is celebrated with a feast day each summer. Movies have trouble convincingly portraying saints and people of goodness. But Amazing Grace is a compelling story that authentically shows us a holy man, including his faults.

Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) enters Parliament in his early 20s in the 1780s. He is an excellent debater and idealist. His good friend from college is William Pitt the Younger (Benedict Cumberbach), who will become Prime Minister at the young age of 24.

Wilberforce believes he may have a religious vocation to the ministry. Pitt and others convince him he can bring his heart-felt religious principles of social justice to his work in Parliament. And so Wilberforce, influenced by a group of Quakers and dissidents, including the ex-slave Oloudah Equiano (Youssou N’Dour) and the political radical Thomas Clakson (Rufus Sewell), throws his heart and soul into the fight to end the slave trade.

England has grown rich from slavery and colonies. Parliament is filled with members who benefit financially from the continuation of the slave trade.

So the film brilliantly shows the slow journey Wilberforce and others make to bring about the end of the British slave trade. Along the way we meet a moral compass of a figure in John Newton (Albert Finney), who is filled with guilt over the 20,000 slaves he transported to the New World. Newton lives like a monk in a small London church. Finney alone is worth the price of the movie. By the end of the film you may well have at least a few tears in your eyes.

The great Michael Gambon plays Charles Fox, the Quaker Whig who early in the film is Wilberforce’s nemesis. But it is Fox who is crucial in bringing about the final success of the abolition bill.

Romola Garai is excellent as Barbara Spooner, who marries Wilberforce in 1797.

What makes Amazing Grace so powerful are the many extraordinary actors all in one film.

If you liked the Academy Award-nominated film The Queen please don’t miss Amazing Grace.

Amazing Grace is rated PG (Parental Guidance) by the MPAA because of its theme of slavery. The USCCB’s Office for Film and Broadcasting rates the film A-II – for adults and adolescents.


The new film Zodiac begins on July 4, 1969, with the brutal shooting of a young couple on a lovers’ lane in Northern California. A couple of months later will come the knifing of another young couple. Once you’ve made it through this horrible violence, then you can begin to enjoy an intricate and fascinating journey of detectives and newspaper reporters seeking answers to the identity of the Zodiac serial killer.

We never get complete satisfaction, as a mystery is supposed to give us, because this story is a meticulous recreation of the action and facts as they took place.

Director David Fincher has painstakingly recreated the Bay area of the 1970s and beyond. This mesmerizing story is told through two reporters at the San Francisco Chronicle and two detectives of the San Francisco Police Department. Along the way, all of them suffer personal loss as they seek to put the pieces together and find the killer.

Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) is the crime reporter for the Chronicle. Editorial cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) loves puzzles and on his own, sneaks his way into the investigation by Avery and the detectives. Zodiac sends puzzles and messages to the Chronicle and other Bay area papers.

Mark Ruffalo plays Inspector David Toschi; his associate is William Armstrong, played by Anthony Edwards, long ago a cast member of television’s ER. The detectives get pulled into the case when a man is shot in a taxi cab in the city.

As the story progresses we see Avery burn out with drugs and alcohol. Armstrong quits his partner after several years. Toschi hangs in there, but eventually the case is put in the cold file. Graysmith becomes more and more obsessed with the case, and even after losing his family, he stays for the duration when we finally reach some conclusion.

The film is two and one-half hours long. But it is so intriguing and filled with investigative work that it holds your attention throughout. It follows a straight linear time-line and dates are often given at the bottom of the film as a new section begins.

Downey seems to be playing the mirror image of his personal life and he does it very well. Ruffalo and Edwards seem pretty mild-mannered as cops. The standout and main character of the movie is the Eagle Scout and good boy of the story, Robert Graysmith, who wrote the book upon which the screenplay is based. Jake Gyllenhaal is outstanding playing an almost naïve cartoonist. He is totally convincing as the man who will track down any facts anywhere to get to the point where he can look the killer in the eye.

A fascinating icon of the film is the time-lapse photography of the construction of the Trans-america Building, which helps us to visualize the months and years going by.

Zodiac is a cerebral mystery that is well worth enjoying, if you can get through the initial violence.

The MPAA rates Zodiac R-Restricted (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian) because of strong killings, language, drug material and brief sexual images. The USCCB Office for Film and Broadcasting rates the film A-III – for adults.

(Father Caswell is archivist and Ecumenical Relations Officer for the Diocese of Spokane, and a frequent contributor to this publication.)

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