Ray revisits themes of deceit with this true-life tale of the biggest security breach in American history


on February 16, 2007 by Annlee Ellingson
It's been six years almost to the day since the arrest of Robert Hanssen, a 25-year career FBI man who for two decades moved sensitive information to the Soviets during the Cold War and, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russians. He sold thousands of pages of classified documents; he outed KGB agents who were spying for the U.S., at least two of whom were assassinated; and he revealed the “continuity of government” relocation plan for the president, vice president, cabinet and other high-ranking government officials in the event of a national emergency.

He also considered himself a patriot with a particular loathing for what he called the “godless Communists.”

Hanssen was a sexual deviant with a proclivity for Entrapment -era Catherine Zeta-Jones; a soft spot for a stripper, on whom he lavished expensive gifts but with whom, she claims, he never had sex; and a habit of inviting his best friend to watch him make love to his wife, both through their bedroom window and via closed-circuit television.

He was also a loving father, devoted husband and devout Catholic — a member of Opus Dei.

It's these dichotomies that are mined in Breach by director Billy Ray, who explored similar themes of deception and betrayal in Shattered Glass, and Chris Cooper, the venerable character actor who, although he doesn't physically resemble the lumbering, 6-foot-3-inch Hanssen, inhabits the man nonetheless. Already the subject of a half-dozen books, here the story focuses on the final two months of the FBI's investigation of Hanssen through the eyes of 26-year-old clerk Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe), who is assigned to serve as Hanssen's assistant while secretly spying on him.

The significance of O'Neill's contribution to Hanssen's arrest appears exaggerated — in five books on the case, none lists his name in the index. And the conflicts and themes in O'Neill's half of the story — whether serving one's country is worth the personal cost — feel forced. Still, it's an intriguing perspective from which to tell the tale, offering a glimpse into the home and interior lives of Hanssen's contradictory character as he inches toward trusting O'Neill, chosen for the task because he is also Catholic and into computers.

Interestingly, aside from the positioning of O'Neill at the center of the investigation and a slight fudging of what he knew when — in the movie he's at first tasked to report on Hanssen's sexual deviancy, whereas in real life he knew from the outset his target was a suspected spy — Breach gets many of the details right. These particulars range from Hanssen's fondness for the phrase “pissing purple,” a line attributed to his hero General George S. Patton, to the location of his arrest to the myriad motivations attributed to his actions: a disapproving father, a feeling of being unappreciated, a raging ego, even, bizarrely, patriotism. (Money surely played a role, but Hanssen ultimately collected a relatively modest $600,000, whereas fellow spy Aldrich Ames made off with $2.7 million.)

Cooper captures all of these complexities and more, encapsulating in one performance a hard-assed boss, exasperated techno geek, amusing old-fashioned conservative (“The world doesn't need any more Hilary Clintons,” he says upon running into a woman in — gasp! — a pantsuit) and loving family man. Upon his inevitable arrest, then, a sadness infuses the scene as Ray's camera frames the back of Hanssen's head as he walks, unawares, from a drop for the last time. Worse is when the man who insists, “I matter plenty!” realizes, “The why doesn't mean a thing, does it?” That the audience's emotional investment lies more with such a despicable character than the protagonist of the film can only be attributed to the actor playing the role. Distributor: Universal
Cast: Chris Cooper, Ryan Phillippe, Laura Linney, Dennis Haysbert, Kathleen Quinlan, Gary Cole and Caroline Dhavernas
Director/Screenwriter: Billy Ray
Producers: Bobby Newmyer, Scott Strauss and Scott Kroopf
Genre: Thriller
Rating: PG-13 for violence, sexual content and language
Running time: 110 min.
Release date: February 16, 2007

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