John Le Carre might have based his tales of chicanery within the British intelligence service on actual cases, but he fictionalized them in the process. Billy Ray has less need to do that in this expertly crafted, if slightly pedestrian, docudrama based on the revelation in 2001 that Robert Hanssen, a veteran FBI agent, had been providing top secret information to the Soviet Union for some two decades. The story has already been employed as the basis of a 2002 telefilm—“Master Spy: The Robert Hanssen Story,” that starred William Hurt as Hanssen (and was written by Norman Mailer). That effort was interesting, but it’s outclassed by Ray’s version. Together with screenwriters Adam Mazer and William Rotko, he’s fashioned an account of how the worst act of treachery in recent U.S. history was eventually uncovered that holds one’s interest although it’s more quietly intriguing than compellingly dramatic—a solid procedural rather than a thriller. More importantly, though, it’s a chilling character study of the man who committed the crime, thanks to its remarkable lead performance.
That comes from Chris Cooper, in what’s easily the juiciest part he’s had since John Sayles’ “Lone Star,” who plays Hanssen as a steely-eyed egotist with an air of supreme self-confidence, an attitude of contempt for everyone around him, and a penchant for religious zealotry. (As in “The Da Vinci Code,” the Catholic Opus Dei group is singled out, but less blatantly than one might expect: in this case it’s more passive bystander than active agitator.) But the actor also manages to bring to the character an undercurrent of self-loathing that makes the man pitiful as well as odious. The rest of “Breach” is competent; Cooper is extraordinary.
When the film opens, Hanssen has already fallen under suspicion, and investigator Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney) assigns young Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe) as his new aide, instructing him to keep tabs on the older man with a cover story that Hanssen has come under scrutiny for alleged sexual misconduct. (Hanssen did, in fact, film intimate moments with his wife and circulate them to others on videotape—a fact that the picture discloses, fairly discreetly, in its last reels.) The narrative is told from O’Neill’s perspective, as he tries to get the goods on Hanssen, whom he comes to respect in some measure, while keeping the task secret from his wife Juliana (Caroline Dhavernas), who becomes concerned about her husband’s increased involvement with a man she finds unlikable.
This review won’t go into the question of divergences from the historical record and exaggerations in Ray’s film—this is a dramatization, after all, not a recreation. But on those terms it’s hobbled by the central decision to focus on O’Neill. Phillippe is certainly good enough, bringing a nice mixture of intensity and callowness to the role, but the character is too bland a reed on which to hang the story. His FBI colleagues played by Linney, Dennis Haysbert and Gary Cole aren’t all that interesting either, though Linney is able to add a few grace notes to a mostly one-note turn and Cole’s customarily serpentine quality is welcome. But it’s the domestic side of the O’Neill thread that’s most problematic. Dhavernas is okay, but her scenes with Phillippe have a canned soapoperatic quality to them. On the other hand, Bruce Davison, in a cameo as O’Neill’s father, adds a touch of welcome nobility to the proceedings.
All of which means that one waits constantly for Cooper to return and take center stage again. The script never attempts to explain Hanssen’s motives—in fact, the decision to keep them ambiguous, even at the close, is one of the film’s strengths, since any single answer would be simplistic—but the actor is able to suggest their complexity, drawing a portrait of a man whose unhappy childhood, sense of unrecognized superiority, psychological problems and religious struggles (to mention only some of the possible factors) together fashioned a figure of unreadable strangeness.
One has to credit Ray for giving Cooper the room to maneuver, but in other respects his work is more functional than inspired; in fact, he was able to impart a greater sense of suspense and urgency to his previous picture, “Shattered Glass” (also about the discovery of betrayal—in that case in the world of journalism) than he brings even to scenes here in which Hanssen almost catches O’Neill or the other members of the FBI team searching his desk and briefcase or sweeping his car. And the sequences he stages between Cooper and Kathleen Quinlan, as Hanssen’s wife Bonnie, never find quite the right tone; the reach for a sort of fundamentalist spookiness seems strained. But he and his crew, led by ace cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, do bring considerable visual elegance to the film, and Mychael Danna’s score adds a note of menace without becoming too obtrusive about it.
One can easily imagine a more extroverted, exciting take on an unmasking-a-traitor plot than “Breach.” But in its subdued, methodical fashion, Ray’s film works reasonably well, and it’s sparked by the inherent fascination of Hanssen’s story and Cooper’s bravura turn. It’s an American version of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy” that may not match the British mini-series (O’Neill is no George Smiley, after all, and Phillippe no Alec Guinness), but is still a pretty creepy take on an authentic American horror story.