In December 2002, ABC’s 20/20 ran a story on Eric O’Neill, an undercover surveillance specialist for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The piece was titled “Spycatcher,” because it was O’Neill who, at a mere 27 years old, helped bring down Robert Hanssen, an FBI agent who, for more than two decades, sold thousands of secrets to the Russian government. FBI agents told ABC that O’Neill was but a bit player in the Hanssen investigation; there were 500 others on the case, which was personally run by FBI director Louis Freeh. But none of them were situated inside Hanssen’s office and ordered to steal his Palm Pilot and download all the KGB contacts stashed therein. And none of them have had movies made about how they helped arrest “a traitor of unparalleled dimension,” as David Vise wrote in his book The Bureau and the Mole.
O’Neill, played by dead ringer Ryan Phillippe in Billy Ray’s low-key Breach, was Hanssen’s photonegative—a baby-faced go-getter trying to work his way up the ranks, a kid who loved his former job as an alleyway shadow trailing suspected terrorists. Hanssen, on the other hand, was a burned-out veteran who, as early as 1980, had grown bitter toward the agency, which he considered full of Neanderthals who didn’t understand or appreciate his genius. Hanssen wasn’t merely a traitor, he was also a thrill-seeker, an Opus Dei–dreaming Catholic with a penchant for strippers and a thing for posting to the Web sexually explicit fantasies about his wife Bonnie.
Breach, which details Hanssen’s final days as a turncoat, plays like a sequel of sorts to Billy Ray’s last film, Shattered Glass, about the fabulist Stephen Glass, fired from
The New Republic for proffering fiction as fact. Only this time, Ray need not stretch too far to give his story weight; he need not remind people that “The New Republic is the in-flight magazine of Air Force One” in order to justify telling the story of a twerp who did some egregious shit. This is the FBI we’re talking about, and Hanssen, played here by Chris Cooper with stolid, brute force, was a certified bad man—and a mesmerizing one as well, despite his being known as “The Mortician” within the bureau for his deadly dull demeanor. Cooper plays him as history has portrayed him: a sneering, self-righteous counterintelligence genius whose Nowhere Man exterior belied a darker truth.
Phillippe, up to now seeming like a minor-leaguer swinging a small stick in the bigs, is perfectly cast as O’Neill, who got lost in bureau offices the first day he was assigned to work undercover as Hanssen’s assistant. He positively shrinks in Cooper’s estimable presence; there are moments when you forget he’s even in the scene. Everyone in the film, including O’Neill’s direct supervisor, Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney), speaks to him like he’s incapable of deep thought. Initially, Burroughs even lies to O’Neill when giving him the assignment, telling him that Hanssen’s under surveillance because he’s a sexual deviant, not a man giving the names of U.S. spies to the Russians so they can kill them.
Like the inferior The Good Shepherd, whose release late last year caused Universal to bump Breach to the February graveyard, this is a spy movie bereft of the genre’s usual, casual kicks. It’s not interested in cheap thrills or playing gotcha with the audience. (Which isn’t to say parts of it aren’t exhilarating: The scene during which Hanssen’s colleague spirits him off to the gun range so O’Neill can steal the Palm Pilot is boilerplate suspense but effective.) But Ray’s more interested in dissecting the relationship between O’Neill and Hanssen, who resists the kid initially but then takes him in as one of his own, insisting that they go to church together and inviting him into his home. As his affection for the boy grows, Hanssen ends up trusting the last person on earth he ever should have.
The movie does not and cannot hide its ending. The finale is referenced in the very first scene, when John Ashcroft speaks to the media about Hanssen’s 2001 arrest near a footbridge in a Virginia park, where he was dropping off a cache of documents for his KGB contacts. But Ray, a storyteller in love with liars he wants to hate but cannot, doesn’t need a surprise ending. The real one’s heartbreaking enough: a tragic love story between the ticked-off traitor who thought he’d found a kindred spirit and the true believer who didn’t want to admit that his father figure was one of the world’s most dangerous men.