The spy who came in from the beltway: Breach ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 3, 2007)

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Early in 2001, the FBI capped off its investigation of the most serious national security breach in U.S. history by arresting Robert Hanssen, who had used his access as the Bureau’s top Soviet counter-intelligence expert to sell classified information to the KGB. That case is dramatized in Breach, a superb new film starring Chris Cooper (in an Oscar-caliber performance) as Hanssen and directed by Billy Ray, who previously helmed Shattered Glass (another true tale dealing with deception and betrayal).

The film opens just a few months prior to the arrest. A young, ambitious field agent, Eric O’Neill (Ryan Philippe) is tasked to work in Hanssen’s office as his assistant, while surreptitiously reporting on his boss’s activities (O’Neill has been told that Hanssen is under suspicion of engaging in “sexual perversion” while on the taxpayer’s dime).

The officious, guarded and inherently suspicious Hanssen is a tough nut to crack; when O’Neill introduces himself on his first day of work, Hanssen barks “Your name is Clerk, and my name is Sir” before slamming his office door shut. However, as O’Neill ingratiates himself into his boss’s life, he is surprised to find him admirable in many ways; he appears to be a true patriot, a good Catholic, and a dedicated “family man”. O’Neill can’t seem to dig up any dirt on the increasingly puzzling “perversion” charges.

When he confronts his real boss (Laura Linney) with his doubts, she lets the cat out of the bag and admits that he has been the victim of a ruse to ensure he could gain Hanssen’s trust. Hanssen, she tells him, is actually under investigation for something more ominous; he is suspected of selling information to the Soviets, possibly over a period of 20-odd years. The degree of damage from this breach is so devastating, that “We (the intelligence community) might as well have all stayed home (all those years).”

Some may find the film bereft of nail-biting suspense; but real-life espionage isn’t always as intriguing as a Le Carre novel or exciting like a Bond film. When the credits roll, Hanssen remains a cipher; although we are shown enough to quash any agent 007 comparisons (unbeknownst to his wife, he videotaped their lovemaking and got his jollies mailing copies to cronies-the very antithesis of suave and sophisticated, I’d wager). If Hanssen recalls any fictional character, it would be a protagonist from a Graham Greene novel (typically a bitter, world-weary public servant, mulled in Catholic guilt).

The film abounds with excellent performances; it’s certainly the best work Philippe has done to date. Dennis Haysbert and Gary Cole lend good support, and Bruce Davison (as O’Neill’s father) makes the most of a brief, poignant scene with Philippe.

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