Writer/director Billy Ray wants his new thriller Breach to be a history-worthy account of Robert Hanssen, the most damaging mole in the history of U.S. intelligence, and the psychological steel-cage match he fought against the novice FBI operative who caught him. You already know the who, what, when, and where of Robert Hanssen’s case. The how is what Ray spins into two plain but unyielding hours of suspense. And the why — the big dramatic why — is what he teases you with.
Spy movies are made with conventional deception. But Hanssen’s duplicity had unusually personal layers to it, and peeling them back is Ray’s forte: his 2003 directorial debut was Shattered Glass, a three-card Monte drama on Stephen Glass’s journalistic fraud at The New Republic. Here Ray applies the same fascination to much better material: Breach is a two-player game and the stakes are far higher.
In 2001, Agent Hanssen (played by Chris Cooper) is going on two decades of passing secrets to the Russians from inside the FBI. Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillipe) — heretofore left out of the books and TV movies — is the 27 year-old factotum the Bureau assigns to figure out where he’s keeping his secrets while playing his assistant. Locked together in a tiny windowless office, their relationship develops intonations of Hannibal Lecter versus Clarice Starling.
Cooper’s congenitally hard shell and spare moodiness — which always covers something seedy, and always cracks — fits Hanssen like a glove. The veteran FBI agent was a sternly devout Catholic and moralizing family man with an almost pathological need for loyalty. On first meeting the real O’Neill, he demanded the names, addresses, and birthdates of his immediate family. Cooper sharpens it to a finer point without pricking reality. “Tell me five things about yourself, four of them true,” he spits when he first meets Phillipe. And from then on, Cooper’s enigmatic grump saturates every scene he’s in and every scene he isn’t.
Told by his handler Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney) that the Bureau is only investigating Hanssen’s kinky extracurricular activities, O’Neill is blind to the danger in his target. Hanssen talks down to O’Neill and erupts in fits of managerial abuse. But he’s also the only one who recognizes O’Neill’s talent. In fact, he’s becoming a fit of a father figure. Hanssen’s plan is working beautifully.
Or is it a plan? A traitor’s life is lonely and Hanssen begins showing up at O’Neill’s apartment unbidden and asking after O’Neill’s wife Juliana (Caroline Dhavernas) with that sordid tone that Cooper couldn’t scrub from his voice if he tried. The friendlier Hanssen is, the more alarming he is. In Silence of the Lambs, you wondered how the master was playing the student. That’s here too, along with the possibility that the master may just be an earnest troglodyte. Even after he learns what Hanssen’s real crimes are, O’Neill still can’t get a handle on him.
When films toot their “based on a true story” horn it’s generally a roundabout apology for how unrealistic they are. Breach toots, but unnecessarily. Shot in the same dull world of foyers, parking lots, and undecorated offices as Shattered Glass, Breach manages to thrill without (for the most part) even having to hint at sensational violence.
The two hours’ traffic of Ray’s stage passes in what feels like 45 minutes. Even the one throwaway part — O’Neill’s relationship with Juliana (oh woe, the secrecy is just tearing them apart) — is dewy with intrigue. Juliana demands to know why Eric is staying out so late, so often. For a second the psychological force of Hanssen’s character trumps logic and it just may be possible that he’s turned her. The only way O’Neill can get any relief from Hanssen, though, is to get even closer.
All this is the how of master spy versus apprentice spy. But Breach moves so quickly because, throughout, you’re trying to pin down Hanssen’s particular why. Why, if he’s so smart and self-aware, is he spying for the Russians? Switch in serial killing for espionage this is exactly the mystery that makes Hannibal magnetic.
Being driven away in handcuffs, Hanssen muses on all the reasons he might have done it. “But [I] did it,” he soliloquizes, “and the why doesn’t really matter.”
Of course it does. Some critics have taken points off Ray’s grade for Breach because it doesn’t deliver that final satisfaction. (Though give him credit for trying: Ray passed along a dozen written questions to the real Hanssen in his SuperMax cell. But the vexing subject didn’t reply.) Is the demerit deserved?
Across the multiplex hall from Breach is the fifth installment in the Hannibal Lecter franchise, Hannibal Rising. Since 1991 (1986, if you count Manhunter) moviegoers have been trying to find pin down exactly why this erudite cannibal does the frighteningly exciting things he does. Yet each movie has been worse than the one before it. None of the insight seems to get us any closer to who or what Hannibal really is, and the more exposure he gets, the less interesting he becomes. It’s possible that Hannibal Rising will give audiences the key to Hannibal as it promises. But even if it does, will anyone really be satisfied?
Maybe it would have been better leave Hannibal in peace. And maybe, when a spy movie is as good as Breach, it’s better not to demand too much more.
– Louis Wittig writes from New York.