Director Billy Ray, whose memorable debut was Shattered Glass, brings his unpretentious filmmaking style to another headline-making psychodrama in Breach. Breach recounts the in-house sting of FBI turncoat Robert Hanssen, whose sale of secrets to the Soviet Union is known as "the worst breach in the history of U.S. intelligence." Ray isn't beyond teasing out implications from his true stories, but he's also smart enough to know where to quit, allowing the viewer to resolve the whys and wherefores.
In a world-class performance, Chris Cooper wrings from Hanssen the tortured hypocrisy of the all-too-human "true believer" Christian and the Iago-esque venom of a man who feels his brilliance hasn't been properly acknowledged. By approaching Hanssen through the recently declassified story of Eric O'Neill—the agent who went undercover as Hanssen's personal assistant—Ray and co-screenwriters Adam Mazer & William Rotko can offer an intimate, fresh perspective on the mass of contradictions that was Hanssen.
Hanssen shares his understanding of FBI culture (if you want to get ahead, it's all about the gun range), but grumpily admits failure to navigate the bureaucratic minefield: "I could stay there a thousand years and still just be an afterthought." That dramatic irony is only the beginning: Hanssen's daily devotion to family-value-brand Catholicism clashes with uncontrolled sexual appetites (hookers, sex tapes, and a Catherine Zeta-Jones fetish), and a seeming patriotic zeal crosses over from love to hate as the veteran agent refuses to suffer under fools taking down Hanssen's America all around him.
Working from limited knowledge of Hanssen's guilt, the likewise Catholic O'Neill (Ryan Philippe) comes to admire Hanssen and, more disturbingly, regard him as a father figure withholding approval until it is truly earned. Advised only to "take nothing personally," O'Neill is the squeaky cog in a 500-agent operation. Nothing gets past Hanssen—painted as a human lie detector—which makes the callow agent's job a mission impossible, one in which his apparent innocence is his best asset.
O'Neill is just able to ingratiate himself with a man who perceives he's the subject of a witchhunt ("It's Kenneth Starr all over again!"), but the highly classified assignment predictably leads to trust issues with his wife (Caroline Dhavernas). After a young career full of sulky brooding, Philippe demonstrates for the second time (the first being Crash) that he has a capacity for emotional shading. Typecast Laura Linney, as O'Neill's handler, can't make much more of her character than the archetypically lonely, snippy professional woman.
There's a tension here between cinematic convention (a few moments of traditional spy-thriller suspense, Mychael Danna's too-noticeable scoring) and a defiantly low-key approach (DP Tak Fujimoto's grey lensing, Cooper's restraint), and while Breach evidently takes dramatic license in spots, it clearly remains true to the essence of its remarkable true story. This championship mind game went to the underdog, but the Monday-morning quarterbacking continues. Ray saves the key question as the film's button, arriving just in time to read our minds: "The why doesn't mean a thing, does it?"