In 2001, FBI trainee Eric ONeill (Ryan Phillippe) starts work under the Bureaus computer wizard Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper), with secret orders to check on his internet habits. Hes soon told Hanssen is the target of an espionage investigation.
Director Billy Ray has a thing about real-life duplicitous characters - Shattered Glass, his first film, was about Stephen Glass, the journalist who passed off wholly fictional articles as well-researched news pieces. Breach follows up by getting unnervingly close to Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper), who lived (at least) a triple life.
A grimly right-wing, joylessly Catholic family man (of the Opus Dei variety) with christiansagainstclinton.com in his internet cache and all manner of old-fashioned prejudices (against women who wear trouser-suits and powder-applying “faggot photographers”), he was also a sleazy lech who traded home-made porn videos and creepily invaded the personal space of his underlings.
Furthermore, as it turned out, he was a career traitor who funnelled government secrets to the Russians well after the fall of the USSR (which he blamed on their being “godless”), and got away with it for as long as he did because he was so clever he was once put in charge of the task force which was supposed to catch the mole.
Following The Good Shepherd and The Lives Of Others, Breach chronicles another spy anecdote from the Cold War - though the immediate pre-9/11 setting makes it seem more an afterthought than sweeping history.
There’s good work from Laura Linney as the senior investigator and Kathleen Quinlan as Hanssen’s odd wife, but it’s basically a two-character piece. As in White Heat or The Fast And The Furious, a fresh-faced undercover agent has to become a better deceiver (indeed, a traitor to his boss and mentor) to bring down a complicated bad guy. Ryan Phillippe, an easy actor to underestimate, holds the story together, looking more and more uneasy as he gets deeper into the case and realises the personal cost. But the film will be remembered for giving Chris Cooper another top-flight role: softly-spoken, like a venomous Garrison Keillor, and understandably paranoid, Cooper’s Hanssen is a portrait etched in evil. The irony is that the good guy Hanssen pretends to be seems even nastier than the traitor he actually is.
Cold and cerebral, with simmering suspense rather than outright excitement, this is a feel-the-quality-of-the-acting movie. It cant answer all sorts of questions, but does take a scary mug shot of a subtle monster.