Just as somber as “The Good Shepherd,” the most recent domestic spy drama, but more tightly focused, “Breach” absorbingly zeroes in on how the FBI nailed the most damaging turncoat in American history. Efficiently and clearly laid out, director Billy Ray’s follow-up to his curiously similar debut film “Shattered Glass” lacks the pulse-quickening elements that would make it a real crowd-pleaser. All the same, Universal should be able to use good reviews to draw a decent audience for a picture that offers a serious-minded alternative to the general run of mindless mid-winter fodder.
In an event that was overshadowed in the wake of 9/11, veteran FBI agent Robert Hanssen was arrested and sentenced to life in prison for systematically betraying top-secret information to the Russians over a 22-year period.
A devoted family man and devout Catholic (Opus Dei takes another hit here), Hanssen passed along exceptionally sensitive information, including where the president and other top officials would be hidden in a dire national emergency, as well as the identities of American spies within the Soviet military intelligence hierarchy, some of whom are known to have been executed as a result.
Hanssen’s activities were only confirmed after a long investigation, and the script by Adam Mazer, William Rotko and Ray takes a methodical approach that assumes the point of view of Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe), the young aspiring agent planted with Hanssen as his new assistant to gather information on the older man without knowing the true intent of the probe. Rather, O’Neill is told by his superior, Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney), that Hanssen is a sexual pervert who needs close scrutiny.
O’Neill has ambitions and a nice wife (Caroline Dhavernas) meant to flesh him out a bit, but for dramatic purposes, the greenhorn mostly serves to provide a window onto the story’s truly fascinating center, Hanssen himself.
Dressed most of the time in suit and dark topcoat, Hanssen is an enigmatic character Chris Cooper wonderfully constructs with small details across the arc of the picture.
When O’Neill first meets him on the job, Hanssen’s new position as head of “information assurance” has him developing an impenetrable database for the bureau, and the older man is deliberately intimidating. But their shared Catholicism personalizes the relationship, and when Hanssen decides O’Neill and his East German-born frau need more religion in their lives, he invites the young couple to join him and his wife (Kathleen Quinlan) at a Latin mass and later at their home.
Hanssen also begins mouthing off about the bureau’s insufficiencies, its blunders and lack of know-how. All through the Cold War, he maintains, the Russians were smarter and more determined than the Americans, but lost because they were godless. His overbearing religiosity notwithstanding, the seasoned pro’s observations and criticisms make so much sense to O’Neill that he comes to greatly admire Hanssen and consider the investigation a waste of time.
At the 45-minute mark, the dynamics shift when Burroughs tells O’Neill the true nature of his mission. Problems ensue at home when O’Neill can’t tell his wife what he’s up to, he must keep Hanssen occupied while the latter’s office and car are examined, and the question lingers of when the ever-suspicious, ultra-observant Hanssen might realize they’re on to him.
Despite these opportunities, Ray never ratchets up much narrative tension or a tingling sense of cat-and-mouse. Oddly, given the dramatically higher stakes in “Breach,” the brazen audacity of the devious young journalist in “Shattered Glass” — in which central character got away with writing falsified articles for the New Republic — created a greater sense of how-did-he-get-away-with-it wonderment than does this essentially after-the-fact account of a master spy’s deceptions. In fact, upon learning that Hanssen once led an inhouse investigation of a suspected FBI mole who was none other than Hanssen himself, one wonders if that might not have been a more intriguing movie than this one (see “No Way Out”).
But Cooper keeps things interesting, even riveting. Stern-faced and sometimes odd in his movements — in a very nice touch, he sometimes crowds O’Neill into bumping into things when they walk together — Hanssen mostly looks at people askance, as if skeptically sizing them up, waiting to seize upon a weakness. A lifetime of surveillance, scrutiny and suspicion, one senses, has formed this physical posture, and his discomfort at having a formal photograph taken speaks volumes about how he can’t abide having the lens turned upon him.
When he is finally apprehended, Hanssen readily spills to the arresting agent (Dennis Haysbert) the possible reasons an agent would become a traitor. But in one of the screenwriters’ better judgments, these reasons remain entirely speculative, leaving the viewer with plenty to chew on.
Phillippe does a decent, straight-ahead job as a relatively ordinary young man who has a form of greatness thrust upon him, while the resourceful Linney supplies her one-dimensional role with a welcome layer of self-deprecation.
Sufficient Washington, D.C., location shooting gives the proper sense of place to a picture mostly lensed in Toronto. Production values are solid, and Mychael Danna’s subdued piano-dominated score accentuates the spare, blue-gray wintry atmosphere.