Robert Hanssen was a devout Catholic who attended Mass daily, a member of Opus Dei who arm-twisted others into joining him at church. An ultra-conservative FBI agent, he had the patriotic posters on his walls and was always ready with a Hillary Clinton-pant-suit joke or a homophobic slur.
And for 22 years, he sold government secrets to the Russians, giving up the names of KGB double-agents and U.S. security arrangements for a nuclear attack. He was the biggest traitor in modern American history.
The story of Hanssen's capture is what Breach, a thoroughly engrossing nuts-and-bolts-of-catching-a-spy movie, is about. This film from the director of Shattered Glass -- which was about a notoriously duplicitous journalist -- peels away the layers of lies that led to the film's opening scene (the actual FBI press conference announcing Hanssen's arrest) in very much the same way as Glass.
Hollywood being Youthywood, the focus here is on the young would-be agent assigned as a clerk to Hanssen. Ryan Phillippe plays Eric O'Neill as an ambitious striver who is kept in the dark about what he is really looking for when he is given a new job with one of "The Bureau's" leading Russian experts and top computer-encryption guys.
"You're going to keep an eye on him for us," his control agent (Laura Linney) tells him. She says the guy is a "sexual deviant."
But the kid has his own theories. Hanssen, played by Oscar-winner Chris Cooper with a heavy dose of arrogance and a shifty, sneaky piety, is something of a jerk. He's suspicious, disdainful of superiors and his new aide, and a little too willing to break the rules. The kid figures he has rubbed the wrong people the wrong way. And the kid went to Gonzaga University, "taught by Jesuits," so the church-happy Hanssen figures he can be saved. They bond over rosary beads.
As the story unfolds, and O'Neill becomes more aware of what the Bureau suspects, director Billy Ray and his co-writers work in a few ticking-clock scenarios. They need to ransack Hanssen's car. They need access to his personal digital assistant. O'Neill has to lie and lie and lie to buy his bosses time.
His wife (Caroline Dhavernas) is furious at the changes in O'Neill -- his new secretiveness, his dragging her to the boss's church, or the boss's home with the boss's dutiful, old-fashioned wife (Kathleen Quinlan plays Mrs. Hanssen).
O'Neill has a crisis of conscience, and the movie gives us a lovely scene in which his father (Bruce Davison) talks to his confused son about "duty," "doing the job" his country needs him to do, and then moving on.
All this is headed toward a resolution that we've seen in the opening scene. The mystery here is how much gunplay there will be, if bodies will be added to those executed Russian double-agents that Hanssen ratted out, if the hip young couple's marriage will be able to withstand the company of people who are all about church and having children and 1940s gender roles.
Breach, in this case, refers to any number of breaks and betrayals, the distance between the public Hanssen and his secret life, or lives.
The real story, of course, is more interesting than Ray or Hollywood tell us. It involved Hanssen's wife, his suspicious brother-in-law and the U.S. head of Opus Dei, the Catholic sect.
But the movie gives us counter-espionage without the Bourne or Bond embellishments and superb acting from Cooper, Phillippe and Linney, the latter as a brittle veteran agent wondering if Hanssen has made her entire career "meaningless."
It's a question that hangs over the Bureau and the whole American secrecy complex. Here's a pretty good movie about how they do what they do, and what they do when it all goes wrong.