3 stars (out of four)
Chris Cooper is the whole, haunted show in "Breach." His eyes are two of the most interesting in contemporary film. Owing to both biology and dramatic training, Cooper--a modern-day knight of the woeful countenance, who won an Oscar for his work in "Adaptation" and played the pent-up ex-military closet case in "American Beauty"--can shoot a fellow actor a look that suggests two things at once. One is the look of the hunter, someone sniffing out a lie. The other is the look of the hunted, someone afraid of being found out.
He's perfectly cast as real-life double agent Robert Hanssen, longtime Federal Bureau of Investigation staffer whose wily sideline (though not wily enough) involved peddling intelligence to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and the former Soviet Union afterward. Hanssen was captured in early 2001 and has gone down in history as the most destructive mole in FBI history.
His undoing was his assistant, FBI agent-in-the-making Eric O'Neill, played by Ryan Phillippe. The verdict on Phillippe, lately seen on screen in "Flags of Our Fathers," is still out; half the time in "Breach," his opaque, untrustworthy quality works for the role and the film. The other half of the time you're too aware of the calculated, studied neutrality. Similarly, director Billy Ray's visual technique borders on the drab, and often crosses that border. But Cooper is excellent throughout. His is an exacting study in oddball hypocrisy.
What we know of the real Hanssen suggests a more reckless loon than the man we see in "Breach." Raised in Chicago's Norwood Park neighborhood, Hanssen endured no end of grief inflicted by his abusive policeman father. After attending Knox College and, later, Northwestern University, he eventually landed in the FBI. He was into strippers. He once invited a childhood buddy to secretly watch him and his wife, Bonnie, in bed. Online he posted graphic sex stories involving his wife. Hanssen was also a devout Catholic and a member of the Opus Dei sect, the one made so infamous in "The Da Vinci Code."
So: a spiritually driven bundle of contradictions, selling intel, nuclear and otherwise, to the Soviets. This is promising movie territory. Like "The Good Shepherd," "Breach" has an honest interest in the emotional cost of lying for a living, and the gray tones between black and white. This may not spell big box office, but "Breach" keeps its head down and does its job.
Even before director Ray frames a shot of Cooper's Hanssen against an office photograph of the recently appointed Attorney General John Ashcroft, you're encouraged to make a Hanssen/Ashcroft association. Is this what morally rigid conservatism leads to? Smartly, Ray doesn't sell the idea too hard in "Breach." The script underplays Hanssen's sexual deviancy, probably for the better, and settles for being a fairly absorbing procedural about how a wormy individual was brought down by O'Neill, acting under orders from FBI special agent Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney, doing her best Joan Allen respect-me-or-die authority figure). Other agents in on the hunt include those played by Dennis Haysbert and Gary Cole.
They're fine, but Cooper is the reason to see the film, which was photographed by Tak Fujimoto in the dour tones he brought to a more flagrant realm of evil, and FBI detective work, in "The Silence of the Lambs." A more indulgent actor than Cooper would've had the wrong sort of fun with Hanssen. Early in the picture O'Neill introduces himself to his cryptic new boss. "My name is Eric," he says. The way the sad-eyed Cooper delivers the rejoinder--"No, your name is `clerk'"--you learn in one insult all you need to know about how not to overplay a rat.
Directed by Billy Ray; screenplay by Adam Mazer, William Rotko and Ray; cinematography by Tak Fujimoto; edited by Jeffrey Ford; production design by Wynn Thomas; music by Mychael Danna; produced by Bobby Newmyer, Scott Strauss and Scott Kroopf. A Universal Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:50. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for language, sexual material and drug content)
Robert Hanssen - Chris Cooper
Eric O'Neill - Ryan Phillippe
Kate Burroughs - Laura Linney
Juliana O'Neill - Caroline Dhavernas
Rich Garces - Gary Cole
Dean Plesac - Dennis Haysbert
Bonnie Hanssen - Kathleen QuinlanCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times