Things are not always as they seem. That was certainly the case with Robert Hanssen, the devout, graceless, buttoned-down FBI agent who, after 22 years of deception, was revealed to be one of the most treacherous spies working for the Soviets in U.S. history. It's also the case with "Breach," the movie about Hanssen's capture. The conventional wisdom is that any studio movie released in February is, by definition, a dog. But "Breach" is actually a wonderfully taut cat-and-mouse thriller. It features a performance by Chris Cooper, as the eccentric, contradictory Hanssen, that ought to be remembered as one of the year's best come December. Let's hope that awards voters have longer memories than usual.
We know from the get-go that Hanssen's the guilty party: that's not the source of the suspense. The screenplay, written by director Billy Ray and the team of Adam Mazer and William Rotko, tells the story from the point of view of Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe), a young, ambitious FBI agent-in-training who is selected to work as Hanssen's assistant to gather evidence against—and set a trap for—the suspected traitor. Initially, O'Neill doesn't realize how big the case is: his FBI boss (an excellent Laura Linney) tells him to look for evidence that the pious Roman Catholic Hanssen is obsessed with online porn. O'Neill hates the job and thinks Hanssen is being unjustly accused. (This is one of the liberties the movie takes with the facts: in reality, O'Neill knew what was at stake from the outset; here, he finds out midway.) Will the paranoid, brilliant Hanssen sniff out O'Neill's true intentions? Can this inexperienced kid outwit one of the most devious minds in the FBI? These questions have a surprising dramatic urgency, largely because Cooper's Hanssen is such an intimidating, unpredictable presence in the film—part Rotarian, part reptile. Cooper keeps you guessing just how many chess moves ahead Hanssen is at any moment. When he directs a cold, suspicious stare at O'Neill, it freezes your blood. As an actor, the often callow, one-dimensional Phillippe would seem to be out of his league up against Cooper, who invests Hanssen with at least five subtle dimensions in every scene. But, in fact, there's a method in the mismatch: we underestimate Phillippe just as Hanssen did O'Neill, never suspecting that his earnest, awkward young protégé is cleverly preparing the way for his destruction. Phillippe proves a surprisingly effective foil.
Ray is fascinated by the nuts and bolts of deception, but there's nothing flashy about his filmmaking. His previous movie, "Shattered Glass," was about the journalistic fraud Stephen Glass, who passed off invented stories as true. Ray simply bores deeply into his characters. When the subject under the microscope is a man as complex, dangerous and enigmatic as Robert Hanssen, that is more than enough.