Director/Coscreenwriter: Billy Ray
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Billy Ray’s third feature, State of Play, opens widely today, so, naturally, I’m reviewing his second feature. (We at Ferdy on Films are nothing if not a bit perverse.) Ray’s debut feature, Shattered Glass (2003), told the true story of Stephen Glass, a rising star at The New Republic who was fired and drummed out of journalism for fabricating stories. State of Play, a truncated adaptation of a six-part BBC miniseries, returns to journalism, as a newspaper reporter follows his nose to discover conspiracies and cover-ups behind two seemingly simple deaths.
Breach bridges the gap between these films—another based-on-fact drama about Robert Hanssen, the most dangerous traitor uncovered in the United States to date. Hanssen’s history of spilling state secrets to the Soviet Union and, after the break-up of the Soviet Union, to Russia, spanned a 20-year period—almost his entire career in the intelligence division of the FBI. Two confirmed deaths occurred as a result of his activities, and up to 50 more are suspected. Hanssen’s is a story made for the movies and especially the type of movie for which Billy Ray is becoming known.
The film opens with archival footage from February 20, 2001, of U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft announcing that an enemy of freedom, Robert Hanssen, had been arrested. The date sent a chill down my spine, which only intensified when the title card “Two months earlier” introduces a scene of counterintelligence surveillance of a married couple from the Middle East. A cleverly hidden cameraman, Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe), snaps picture after picture of the arguing couple, then climbs back into the black van that contains two of his colleagues. They offer up a copy of a report he wrote and rag on him for ignoring the team. “If you’d read it, you’d see you two were named in the acknowledgments,” the ambitious O’Neill shoots back, a subtle way the film suggests that the FBI is like any other workplace—full of work that never gets read and people who make assumptions based on appearances.
O’Neill wants to become an agent, and when he is called on a Sunday into the office of Agent Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney) and given an assignment to spy on newly promoted Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper). He is to work as Hanssen’s assistant and look for evidence that Hanssen is posting or distributing sexually explicit material, which Burroughs says could be a major embarrassment to the bureau. O’Neill sees this as a demotion from his counterintelligence work, but asks if this is a major case that will forward his ambitions. Burroughs tells him nothing.
O’Neill meets Hanssen for the first time in their triple-lock-protected office space. Hanssen asks O’Neill to tell him five things about himself, four of which are true, an exercise he used to play with colleagues to keep sharp on reading people. O’Neill says he’s not a very good liar. After a pause, Hanssen says, “That would count as your lie.”
As O’Neill gets to know Hanssen, he learns the man is highly suspicious and attuned to the slightest detail, extremely intelligent about computer systems and security, a devout Catholic, resentful of the FBI’s gun culture that determines whether you’re in or out, and alarmed to hear that O’Neill’s wife Juliana (Caroline Dhavernas) is from East Germany. Nonetheless, the two men begin to form a relationship of sorts based on Hanssen’s desire to get the lapsed Catholic back into the fold. The O’Neills spend one Sunday with Hanssen and his wife Bonnie (Kathleen Quinlan) at church and then have dinner at the Hanssen home, where Eric watches Bob play with his grandchildren and learns about Hanssen’s tough, unsympathetic father. Hanssen presents him with a binder full of articles he spent the night pulling from the Internet to help O’Neill cope with his mother’s Parkinson’s disease.
Eric, having observed no evidence of sexual deviance and convinced Hanssen is the salt of the earth, confronts Burroughs with doubts about the investigation. “You admire him,” she says. “Actually, you had to to serve our purposes.” She then stuns him with the news that he is helping to break the biggest case in FBI counterintelligence history, and introduces him to Agent Dean Plesac (Dennis Haysbert) and the rest of the very large team. They have accumulated evidence of Hanssen’s treachery, but Hanssen has been so clever that it won’t be sufficient to convict him of the most serious charges. They want to catch Hanssen in the act of passing secrets. “But that will mean the death penalty,” says a shaken O’Neill. “Don’t you think he deserves it?” Plesac retorts.
The rest of the movie essentially pits O’Neill’s wits against Hanssen’s. Can he get information on Hanssen’s Palm Pilot downloaded without Hanssen noticing? Can the team dismantle Hanssen’s car to search it without arousing his suspicions that the car was touched? Now that O’Neill knows just what a rat Hanssen is, will he be able to keep his head?
Breach is pretty much a standard-issue thriller, with a number of cooked-up moments of suspense that are there by the grace of the screenwriters. For example, when Hanssen is unexpectedly stood up for an appointment, he orders O’Neill to drive him back to his office well before the team can reassemble Hanssen’s car. What’s O’Neill to do? He takes a longer route that just conveniently is jammed up by a jack-knifed truck. Or, when the team learns that Hanssen has decided to go underground, O’Neill tells them to back off their surveillance tails—he can get Hanssen to make an expected drop. Naturally, this ploy puts O’Neill at risk for his life. Or, Hanssen carelessly gives O’Neill a package to deliver (which he steams open) that contains a film of him and Bonnie having sex. These kinds of creaky plot devices should have sunk this movie.
But they don’t, not surprisingly, because Chris Cooper, perhaps the finest American actor working today, is at the helm. Because the story takes place at the end of Hanssen’s run as a spy, we don’t really get much background information about him or his motives. We are fortunate that this smart script offers us Hanssen’s real words in the form of his deencrypted letters to his Soviet/Russian handlers. His arrogance regarding his intelligence, his contempt for his coworkers, his graciousness toward the comrades who realize that he’s a very important person are ego issues that few of us haven’t experienced. Yet because of where he works, he literally holds lives in his hands. He wasn’t trying to get rich—greed would have undone him by arousing suspicions over a lavish lifestyle or enlarged bank accounts—just accumulate a quiet power. Cooper realizes that a double life can only be maintained by making each life deeply felt. A veneer of respectability is easy to see through. True respectability is not, and Hanssen, as embodied by Cooper, is completely convincing as a devoted convert to the extreme Catholicism of Opus Dei and a superpatriot who sees godlessness as the fatal flaw of the Soviet bloc. And yet, this belief must have been at least a bit of a fraud—perhaps a remnant of his preconversion self—because he actively worked against the United States for this godless empire. Hanssen must have been the king of compartmentalization—which is prerequisite for a fanatic—but because this film compresses events, it’s hard to see clearly. It is only through Cooper’s superhuman skills that we are able to understand a bit about what makes a master spy on the inside.
I’m not a big fan of Ryan Phillippe, but playing with Cooper sharpened his game. He inhabits O’Neill (perhaps also through the help of the real Eric O’Neill, who was ever-present on the shoot) as a naïve do-gooder who learns how to lie and play on this man’s religious convictions and family-values morality to get what he wants, using Juliana as an excuse for just about every deception he has to run. When, in the end, he gives up the spy game, we’re not surprised. He admired Hanssen at first because that’s the kind of FBI O’Neill wanted to believe in.
The rest of the cast don’t really emerge from their stock characters, despite Ray’s scheme to first show the façade of the principal players—ambitious O’Neill, imperious Hanssen, hard-as-nails Burroughs—only to reveal the more vulnerable people underneath as soon as Burroughs lets the cat out of the bag to O’Neill. This might have worked in an entirely fictional film, but in a case as well-publicized as this one, we already know that nothing is what it seems. O’Neill is actually the only dynamic character in the film, but his growth seems a bland meal of insight indeed when it’s Hanssen we really want to know about.
The film benefits from its use of real locations, and in an extra on the DVD, we learn that Hanssen’s office and the surrounding FBI offices and corridors were built as exact duplicates of the real things. In fact, the DVD extras are superb, and fill in many of the gaps left by the film itself. On the whole, I enjoyed this film. Great writing and performances disguise what a paint-by-numbers job it is. Ray is a director the James Bond franchise might want to consider.