Director Billy Ray’s new movie Breach shares a narrative thread with his last one, Shattered Glass: both are about real-life deceivers who fooled their employers and colleagues for a surprisingly long time.
Breach raises the stakes quite a bit, however. In Shattered Glass the deceiver was Stephen Glass, who fabricated dozens of the stories he wrote for the New Republic in the 1990s before being caught and fired. In the great scheme of things, Glass’ lies were no big deal; they merely scuttled his own career. Ray is frying bigger fish this time around. The deceiver in Breach is FBI Agent Robert Hanssen, who betrayed his country and (very possibly) got people killed in the biggest security breach in U.S. history.
Ray is working from his own rewrite of a script by first-time writers Adam Mazer and William Rotko (who also get story credit). However, much of the script is actually Ray’s work (Mazer and Rotko get top billing), Breach’s structure is similar to that of Shattered Glass. The film is populated by a number of interesting characters played by good actors but, in the end, the dramatic focus boils down to only two of them. In Shattered Glass it was Glass and the New Republic editor Charles Lane, who fired him. In Breach it’s Hanssen (Chris Cooper) and his new assistant Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe), who actually has been placed in Hanssen’s office to spy on him.
In the film, O’Neill is an FBI underling hungry to make agent. When he’s assigned to headquarters “riding the desk of an agent named Robert Hanssen,” he’s told it’s because Hanssen is a sexual deviant who’s trolling for Internet porn on the job and nudging the limits of sexual harassment with Bureau co-workers.
At least that’s the story he gets from his handler, Agent Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney). But after weeks on the job, O’Neill finds it doesn’t add up. Yes, Hanssen is a dour, secretive martinet with a short fuse, but he’s a devout Catholic, apparently straight-laced and devoted to his family. When O’Neill confronts Burroughs, asking her what he’s really supposed to be doing, she comes clean. It’s not just the porn, she says, although that’s true enough: Hanssen is a traitor. He’s been selling secrets to the Russians for over 15 years: surveillance programs, double agents, continuity-of-government plans, everything he could get his security-cleared hands on. O’Neill’s job is to help catch him red-handed so he can be put away for good.
If Breach followed the standard cliché of espionage movies, Hanssen would become the victim and O’Neill the betrayer, after the old E.M. Forster quote about betraying one’s country vs. betraying one’s friend. But Ray is having none of that; for all its lurking shadows and breathless intrigue, Breach has its moral compass. Cooper’s Hanssen is the betrayer here—of family, friends, co-workers and country. (Then, of course, after he’s caught he starts betraying his Russian handlers.)
Still, the movie doesn’t shrink from the emotional and personal cost of bringing him down. O’Neill’s marriage suffers as his wife Juliana (Caroline Dhavernas), sensing Hanssen’s unsavoriness (she calls him a “creep”), misinterprets her husband’s immersion in Hanssen’s creepiness. The strain makes O’Neill wonder if he’s really so eager to make agent after all. Plus, there’s always the chance that Hanssen might just snap and kill him.
As Breach sharpens its focus to the duel between O’Neill and Hanssen, it becomes a showcase for its two main actors. Cooper’s Hanssen is a tightly wound mix of rigid wariness, snarling temper, sanctimony and sexism (“Women shouldn’t wear pants. The world doesn’t need any more Hillary Clintons.”). Phillippe has the less showy but more challenging role; O’Neill has to outsmart a man who Burroughs tells him is “smarter than all of us.” He has to stay one step ahead of Hanssen while letting Hanssen think he’s the one who’s always one step ahead.
Through it all, Ray manages to stay several steps ahead of us. Even those who know nothing of the Hanssen case know where the movie is going (it begins with news footage announcing Hanssen’s arrest), but we don’t know how it’s going to happen or how much damage Hanssen will do to those around him before he’s finally brought down.