Spy vs. Spy

Chris Cooper, left, and Ryan Phillipe star as cat-and-mouse FBI agents in Breach. Courtesy photo.
Dir. Billy Ray; writ. Adam Mazer, William Rotko, Billy Ray; feat. Chris Cooper, Ryan Phillippe, Laura Linney, Caroline Dhavernas (PG-13)
Thirty years ago, when two superpowers stood on the brink of mutual annihilation, few could imagine that, if civilization somehow survived, anyone would ever yearn to return to that sorry period. Yet the current morass in Iraq has created nostalgia for the apparent moral clarity of the Cold War. Witness the posthumous canonization of Ronald Reagan as champion of the Free World against the Evil Empire, and the renewed popularity of East-West espionage films, the most brilliant recent examples of which are The Good Shepherd and The Good German. Breach — which might as well be called The Bad G-Man — is a worthy addition to a spook fan’s most-wanted list.

Based on a true story, as the opening titles state, Breach recounts the final two months that Robert Hanssen (Cooper), a devastatingly effective Soviet mole for more than two decades, spent working for the FBI. The film begins with actual footage of a press conference at which Attorney General John Ashcroft announces Hanssen’s arrest, and it concludes with that arrest. Director Billy Ray — whose only other film, Shattered Glass, is also a study in real-life deceit, how an ambitious young journalist advanced his career at the New Republic by filing bogus stories — is not out to create a whodunit. We already know that Hanssen is guilty of treason and that he will be apprehended. What remains to be seen is what kind of man he is and how, despite extraordinary cunning, Hanssen is captured in flagrante. Ray creates exquisite tension in a story whose outcome is already known.

While tracing the fall of a master spy, Breach also follows the education of an aspiring agent. The film provides the illusion of security clearance, allowing viewers to eavesdrop on a top-secret investigation. Eric O’Neill (Phillippe), a novice, is assigned to be Hanssen’s assistant — and shadow — in a newly created, spurious “Division of Information Assurance” at Bureau headquarters in Washington, D.C. Told that Hanssen, a legendary Soviet analyst on the verge of retirement, is a sexual deviant, he is ordered to uncover evidence that will incriminate him.

Described in his Bureau file as “confident bordering on cocky,” O’Neill chafes at the assignment. “No one ever put me on a perversion detail before,” he complains. O’Neill soon learns that he has been assigned to bring down the individual his supervisor, Kate Burroughs (Linney), calls “the worst spy in American history,” one who also engages in quirky sexual behavior. The film becomes a tense psychological duel between Hanssen, a stern boss, pious Catholic, and resentful FBI veteran, and O’Neill, who quickly learns the tricks of his duplicitous trade, but queries Burroughs: “Is it worth it, being an agent?”

“Can I trust you?” Hanssen, who betrays his country, damaging its security and prompting executions of Soviet informers, asks O’Neill. Both men labor under the burden of being sons and husbands. The foremost difference between these characters is this: One commits and the other exposes what Burroughs calls “the worst breach in the history of U.S. intelligence.” But in Breach it is already February 2001, and records, like lives, are made to be broken. 

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