In "Shattered Glass" (2003), his impressive directorial debut, Billy Ray delved into the quasi-cultish world of Washington journalism to bring us the story of an inspired fraud who threatened the integrity of a magazine with his bogus reporting. It makes sense, then, that Ray should return to another august D.C. institution, the FBI, for his second outing as writer-director.
Based on the capture of G-man turned Russian spy Robert Hanssen, "Breach" also focuses on the attempt to trap and expose a brilliant liar. Although countless movies have trained their cameras on the bureau, Ray and his fellow screenwriters have brought something fresh to their look inside the house that Edgar built, namely a complicated villain whose motives the filmmakers are content to leave in some measure mysterious.
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Even if the peripheral elements of the film do not always live up to the psychological drama of Hanssen (Chris Cooper), at its core, "Breach" works both as an engaging character study and as an unusually low-key, quietly suspenseful thriller.
"Breach" is set in that long weekend between the fall of the Soviets and the rise of al-Qaida. In this film, that means a time of queasy uncertainty at the heart of the institutions whose power and prestige derived from their supposed position as guardians against the Red menace. What's left over is a rather empty careerism, slightly elevated by the whiff of patriotism that pervades the cubicles along with the sound of requisition forms shuffling back and forth between bureaucrats. As if to confirm the dispirited atmosphere, Gary Cole shows up as a tight-lipped middle management type, a variation of the unbearable martinet he played in "Office Space" (1999).
We enter this world at the side of an ambitious, wonky youth bucking for agent, Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe). Accustomed to lurking behind shrubs to snap photos of shadowy "subjects" shades of Francis Ford Coppola's "The Conversation" (1974) he's tasked with the comparatively unglamorous job of keeping an eye on the office letch, Hanssen, whose smutty Internet postings, O'Neill is told, could prove a disgrace to the bureau. What he isn't told is that Hanssen is, in fact, a mole who's been selling the nation's secrets to the Russians for years, costing the lives of at least a pair of American "assets."
Although the action is seen mostly through O'Neill's eyes, it's Hanssen who makes the movie tick. A bundle of contradictions, he has a crucifix on his office wall and bristles with violent threats when he sniffs the least bit of opposition to his will. With the fierce awareness of a genius whose counsel has been ignored by paper-pushing superiors, he rails with great conviction against the bureau's inability to protect the sacred mission of the United States, lectures O'Neill on the fatal flaw that led to the demise of the Soviets (atheism) and all the while passes on vital information to the godless communists' successors in the Kremlin.
Cooper is masterful in the role, especially in his ability to make Hanssen's professional and theological obsessions seem all of a piece. His Hanssen is a born crusader, forever working to subdue demonic forces in the world and in himself. O'Neill, in part, works his way into Hanssen's confidence by admitting to being a lukewarm Catholic himself. Hanssen, a fan of Opus Dei, senses that he's ripe for conversion, and before long, he's dragooned O'Neill and his lovely, formerly East German wife (Caroline Dhavernas) into spending Sunday afternoons with the exuberantly devout Mrs. Hanssen (Kathleen Quinlan) and their scampering grandkids. Under the floorboards sits the blood money that finances this bastion of authentic religious fervor and vibrant Americana.
Hanssen is endlessly fascinating, but the characters swirling around him with the exception of his wife, whom Quinlan endows with a quiet, eerie fanaticism do not live up to his originality, in spite of a splendid cast. Phillippe's O'Neill is a bit of a sad sack. Dedication to the bureau threatens his marriage and has stunted the life of his handler (an inwardly bedraggled but outwardly crisp Laura Linney), but these plot points are too well-worn and prefabricated to capture our interest.
No matter. Ray keeps the story humming along at a pleasing clip, and there's even some skillfully handled old-fashioned suspense, a satisfying bonus in this deft psychological portrait. (PG-13) 110 min. **** S