Story Highlights• "Breach" about the Robert Hanssen FBI case
• Movie features great performance by Chris Cooper
• Too many questions unanswered to be great, says critic
By Tom Charity
Special to CNN
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(CNN) -- In February 2001 Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that veteran FBI agent Robert Hanssen had been arrested for treason.
Directed by Billy Ray ("Shattered Glass"), "Breach" focuses on the two months leading up to Hanssen's arrest.
Although the full extent of the information Hanssen passed to the Russians remains classified, it is known that over 22 years he compromised at least 50 agents, some of whom were subsequently murdered; he leaked plans for the evacuation of U.S. government officials in the event of a nuclear attack, and details of U.S. intelligence gathering operations. And he profited from this to the tune of $1.4 million.
The Department of Justice called the Hanssen case "possibly the worst intelligence disaster in U.S. history."
In "Breach," with officials suspecting something wrong with Hanssen (Chris Cooper), Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe) -- a young agent -- is assigned to spy on the older man. He'll do so without a cover story -- his superiors sense that Hanssen would smell the deception immediately and run to ground.
Cooper won an Academy Award five years ago as the orchid expert John Laroche in "Adaptation." This is his meatiest role since, and he's certainly the most compelling reason to check out "Breach."
Gruff and craggy, Hanssen consciously psyches out the younger man ("Your name is Clerk and you call me Sir or Boss," he instructs an overly familiar Eric). He moves slowly and stiffly -- 56 years old and on the verge of retirement -- but he's impatient with protocol and evidently resentful about his lack of advancement. He can't hide his surliness and indeed doesn't try to. But there's sourness too, around the mouth, as if he can't dispel the taste of his own bile.
The term "breach" is often associated with a security violation or a betrayal of trust -- both appropriate here -- but it's also an opening, a gap. O'Neill realizes Hanssen's vulnerability lies in what should be one of his strengths. He is a devout Catholic (a member of Opus Dei, "Da Vinci Code" fans) who urges O'Neill to pray regularly and confess his sins.
"Breach" is most absorbing, in fact, in the early scenes, where the neophyte agent is completely taken in by this facade of conservative piety. Later when he has been formally "read in" on the case, Eric exploits his own (lapsed) Catholic credentials to allay Hanssen's suspicions. The ploy works, which is some testament to the sincerity of the traitor's religious conviction, but that too must be taken on faith.
But in other respects this becomes a classic undercover story, exploring conflicted personal and professional loyalties, the cost of living a lie, and, paradoxically, the human facility for self-deception.
We can imagine the spiritual testing ground Martin Scorsese might have made of this -- not least because "The Departed" is in a neighboring ballpark -- but neither Billy Ray nor Ryan Phillippe persuade us that Eric's conscience is at issue here.
A well-written scene in which O'Neill discusses quitting with his father (Bruce Davison) feels misplaced, coming on the heels of the revelation that he's point man in probably the most important internal investigation in FBI history. It's true O'Neill quit later, but not out of any sense of shame or doubt.
The film is more confident detailing O'Neill's courage and ingenuity. The suspense sequences hinge on his quick wits, not sharp-shooting. He doesn't even carry a gun.
A long, uniformly credible supporting cast (Laura Linney, Gary Cole, Dennis Haysbert) confirms how expert American actors have become at making subterfuge seem like business as usual.
In the end, though, Ray's careful emphasis on authenticity over thrills and psychology over action is impeded by this narrative's narrow window: there's so much we can't know about what Hanssen did and why. Despite what we glean from Cooper's anguished character study, the movie only gives us hints of what drove this man to betray everything he seemed to hold dear.
Crucially, unlike the vastly underrated "The Good Shepherd," it neglects to indict the system that throws up such tortured anomalies, and allowed them to prosper for so long. It's a missed opportunity, and a shame, for what's otherwise a fine film.
"Breach" runs 110 minutes and is rated PG-13. For Entertainment Weekly's take, click here.
In "Breach," Ryan Phillippe (left) plays an FBI agent entrusted with spying on Robert Hanssen, played by Chris Cooper.