February 22, 2007

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Breach (PG-13)
Robert Hanssen was a square, religiously conservative F.B.I. agent and family man who also was pervy traitor who probably caused the death of dozens of Soviet operatives spying for the U.S. — a true story told with surprising skill in the suspenseful Breach.

Which is not to say that Breach, with its spies and double crosses, is anything like a Tom Clancy-based movie or one of the Jason Bourne flicks. This is a nerdy version of the U.S.-intelligence-community movie, where the villain is a frustrated super-spy stuck in a middling bureaucrat’s life. Robert Hanssen has no master plan, no flashy car kept secretly under the name of a bottle-blonde mistress. As the movie portrays him here, he might have spent decades unraveling the webs his colleagues wove because he was peeved that he would never make FBI director or even get an office with a window. Or maybe he wanted to prove he was smarter than the other guys in the room and did so by working against them. The movie never definitely explains why Hanssen acted as he did, but it leaves us to believe that, whatever the reason, it’s a fairly petty one.

Hanssen (Chris Cooper) seems like a man who could harbor a good deal of pettiness in his soul. He is personally unpleasant — he lectures new acquaintances about religion and has a particularly vicious homophobic streak. He seem perpetually pre-rage, treating every misstep of his new assistant, Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe), as a personal affront and answering it with a pissy shout. Perhaps Hanssen’s mood is because he senses his new assignment is a nothing job — though he thinks he’s been given it to kill time before he’s retired. When O’Neill learns how close his boss is to hanging up his badge, he’s a little shocked, having been told that he was assigned to Hanssen because the older man is a “sexual deviant” who has “made posts” on some Web sites. O’Neill, who is both decent and ambitious and wants a case that is less sordid and more career-making, finally asks his superiors what gives, why hassle a man half out the door anyway?

It’s then that Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney), an agent working Hanssen’s case, tells O’Neill that Hanssen has created the worst security breach in U.S. history, selling secrets to the Soviet Union and then to the Russian government. O’Neill is essentially a living surveillance camera, meant to keep track of Hanssen and help the F.B.I. catch him in the act. This knowledge doesn’t seem to make Hanssen feel any better about his post — now he senses the danger of spending every day with an amoral crazy person who is, and here’s what’s truly terrifying, probably smarter than not only O’Neill but everybody who could protect him.

Some of the best parts of Breach are O’Neill’s scenes of mad panic trying to spy on Hanssen without his knowing but almost certain that he’s about to get caught. To keep himself suspicion-free, O’Neill decides, wisely, to appear to Hanssen as a naïve, barely competent greenhorn. But while this helps O’Neill obscure his real purpose around this intensely suspicious man, it does put him in the center of Hanssen’s near-constant wrath.

The other best parts of Breach involve Linney, who perfectly characterizes the sense of cold, weary betrayal felt by Hanssen’s colleagues. Burroughs tells O’Neill that the worst part of Hanssen’s treachery, for her, is that his secret-selling has made her whole career a waste of time. When we get bits of information about her life — she’s single and doesn’t even have a cat to keep her company during the off-hours — we get how devastating that really is for her.

The movie is straightforward in its storytelling and the performances are all above average and matter of fact, with no showy action-movie embellishment. What makes the movie shocking are the facts — the vastness of Hanssen’s crimes, the weirdness of his personality, the lengths the F.B.I. had to go to to catch him. The movie gives life to the newspaper facts of the story with small details and dialogue that while simple is still smart.

Another shocking moment comes at the movie’s end, when title cards remind us that Hanssen was caught in February 2001. This isn’t a movie in any way about the rest of 2001 but you can’t help but think about all the other things the F.B.I. — segmented off (as all the agencies were) from the rest of the U.S. intelligence community, consumed with discovering its own mole, lax with security and behind the times in terms of computer technology and communications abilities — wasn’t paying attention to. You can’t help but wonder if enough of the problems discussed and demonstrated here have changed. B

Rated PG-13 for violence, sexual content and language. Directed by Billy Ray and written by Ray, Adam Mazer and William Rotko, Breach is an hour and 50 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Universal.