March, 2007, Thriller

Directed by:Billy Ray

Starring:Chris Cooper, Ryan Phillippe, Laura Linney, Dennis Haysbert, Caroline Dhavernas, and Gary Cole

Four years ago Billy Ray, a writer known for turning screenplays for a series of commercially successful thrillers, made his directorial debut with Shattered Glass, the true story of New Republic reporter Stephen Glass who violated every norm of journalistic integrity by inventing/plagiarizing over half his articles for that magazine. Ray’s taunt dialogue and crisp direction helped a superb cast examine the motivations that lay behind Glass’ fraudulence and the myopia of those charged with checking the facts behind his often startlingly provocative stories. 

Ray’s fascination with duplicity and detection continues in this, his sophomore outing behind the camera, by examining former F.B.I. agent Robert Hanssen, (a brooding Chris Cooper) currently serving a life sentence in solitary confinement at a Federal Prison in Colorado for selling classified secrets to the Soviet Union. A career employee of The Bureau, who devoted a quarter of a century to fighting the U.S.S.R. even as he sold them information on America’s military and intelligence activities, Hanssen was a religiously pious Catholic with a wife and six children who maintained an avid interest in Internet porn, even secreting a video camera in his own bedroom so he could record and distribute sexual encounters with his wife Bonnie. Who says truth isn’t stranger than fiction?

Breach examines the massive effort undertaken by Hanssen’s superiors to trap him in the act of actually passing documents to Russian intelligence so he could be pressured, (with an offer of life imprisonment rather than the death penalty) into divulging everything that he’d done. The strategy involved creating a bogus computer department for Hanssen to manage and providing him with a young assistant named Eric O’Neil, (Ryan Phillippe) who was secretly tasked to spy on the spy. The cat and mouse game these two real-life agents played provides the skeleton of the film’s storyline, pitting Hanssen’s inherently suspicious nature against O’Neil’s apparent well-meaning eagerness and lack of guile. The ensuing battle of wits between these seemingly mis-matched deceivers unfolds in Breach’s foreground while the considerable resources of O’Neil’s handlers at wire-tapping, encryption, surveillance and computer invasion work behind the scenes to give the young trainee sufficient edge to finally entice Hanssen into the snare his superiors laid for him. 

While the movie lacks the intricacies of spy-trapping to be found in John LeCarre’s remarkable espionage stories, (Tinker, Taylor, Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People) Breach faithfully replicates the alternating arrogance and self-loathing of pursuer and perused to be found in those classics; in his determined effort to win promotion by “bagging” Hanssen, O’Neil displays many of the same soulless qualities manifested by his quarry. The agent in charge of the operation, (the always superb Laura Linney) wraps herself in self-protective cynicism to ward off the depressing implications of her assignment. When O’Neil asks her if what they’re doing is worth it, she deflects his query with a sardonically weary “Ask me when it’s over.”

 As the brooding, sexually-skewed Hanssen, Cooper adds to his collection of cryptic oddballs; from Adaptation to Silver City, Seabiscuit to Jarhead, this corn-fed Midwesterner, (who majored in agriculture and acting at the University of Missouri) infuses his characters with a terse vitality that makes their  emotional outbursts all the more frightening because of their oddly-placed infrequency. Audiences are never quite sure what a Cooper character is capable of; that consistent unease enlivens every appearance of this exceptionally talented actor. In Cooper’s hands, Hanssen emerges as a toxic brew of breathtaking arrogance, envy at the success of others, tortured religious conservatism, sexual repression and brilliant cunning. Surely there aren’t more perfect ingredients for the career path he ultimately chose. 

Known far more for his near-perpetual pout, pretty-boy looks and marriage to Reese Witherspoon, Phillippe’s best previous efforts, (Gosford Park and Crash) have come in films where his rather limited range has been well served by the ensemble nature of the movies themselves. But here he holds his own quite credibly opposite the dazzlingly mercurial Cooper; sporting a hair color as dark as his character’s lust for promotion, Phillippe delivers a thoroughly convincing performance as the overly ambitious O’Neil, a rather venal young man on-the-make who’s quite willing to feign interest in his religious faith, endanger his marriage and lie through his teeth to bag his quarry. O’Neil’s role in this morbidly fascinating affair may be impressive, but Phillippe makes him distinctly unappealing in the process.

Legendary cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, (Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, Devil in the Blue Dress, The Sixth Sense) who began his career with the cult classic Badlands, shoots here in nearly perpetual shadow, his palate running the gamut from putty grey to midnight blue. Gordon Sim’s set designs feature so many windowless rooms, work stations and cramped auto interiors the audience can be forgiven for feeling a bit claustrophobic, which only enhances the story’s deliberately suppressed tensions. The locations employed, (Toronto, suburban Vienna Virginia & Washington D.C.) quietly underscore the aura of credibility found in this depressing but briskly-told tale of America’s most successful traitor. 

The verdict? A solid, well-crafted spy thriller that manages to paint the good guys realistically while depicting a villain as pathetic as he is despicable. 

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