The irony of writer-director Billy Ray's career is that his most credible work concerns pathological liars. In 2003 he gave us Shattered Glass, the story of a New Republic journalist found to have fabricated stories. His latest offers the spellbinding account of a real-life double agent's downfall.
Chris Cooper turns in a finely tuned performance as Robert Hanssen, a senior FBI operative who sold classified information to the Soviets for two decades in what's been called "the worst intelligence disaster in U.S. history." In addition to being a traitor, Hanssen was a world-class super- freak - a fanatical Catholic (and Opus Dei member) who attended mass daily while at the same time dating strippers and secretly videotaping himself in bed with his wife for the entertainment of friends he met on the Internet.
When organizers of an in-house sting operation assign an ambitious young agent-in-training to act as his assistant, Hanssen's proclivities as a perv are cited as the reason for special interest. Ryan Phillippe plays Eric O'Neill. The film is based on his account of events leading to the spy's 2001 arrest and conviction. According to his superior (Laura Linney), Hanssen's lewd postings on certain websites were causing concern within the Bureau, and officials at the highest level wanted detailed reports on his day-to-day activities.
The truth was far more elaborate and, well, like something out of a movie: The entire department Hanssen had been assigned to run was a ruse. Of the dozens of people working in it, only O'Neill and the sting's target were unaware that it was a trap.
It's fascinating to follow the relationship between the two men as it evolves. The inexperienced but intuitive O'Neill starts off in a position of awed subservience. His boss' intellect is legendary. Before long, he's convinced Hanssen is simply misunderstood, and informs Linney's character that he wants no part in a misguided lynching. That's when she lets him in on the operation's true mission - catching a master spy in the act and putting him away for life.
The mission pretty much hinges on the rookie's ability to improvise constantly and to keep Hanssen convinced that nothing's up. Not the simplest of challenges, given that his boss' bullshit detector is legendary. Amazingly, the younger man proves his senior's match, and the film's climactic moments feature a white-knuckle duel of wits.
Ray's latest may not be in quite the same league as, say, The Good Shepherd, but it is frequently riveting stuff. Cooper's a wonder to behold, as always, and Phillippe and Linney do understated, craftsmanlike work. What prevents Breach from being an even more satisfying experience is the script, co-written by the director with Adam Mazer and William Rotko. In the end, its greatest strength is also its most notable weakness.
It presents us with a warped and tantalizing riddle - what the hell was with this guy? - but never gets around to solving it. Certainly in the years since his imprisonment, Hanssen's motives and contradictions of character have been sorted out to some degree. Several books have been written about him. The case has even been the subject of a TV miniseries ("Master Spy"). Without doubt, more is known than is disclosed here, and some viewers may feel shortchanged by the degree to which the moviemakers leave them in the dark. After all, what's the point in telling the most significant counterespionage tale of our time and keeping the most compelling part top-secret?