Robert Philip Hanssen is a traitor. For all the words that have been written about him, for all the psychological analyses, the speculation about his motivation, and the assessments of his character, this is, at the end of the day, all that really warrants being said about Hanssen. He is a traitor, and that singular truth is his legacy.

—From the sentencing memorandum in the case of United States of America vs. Robert Philip Hanssen

As the disgraced FBI agent Robert Hanssen, who spent more than half of his 25 years on the job selling U.S. government secrets to the Russians, the actor Chris Cooper carries himself with a rod-stiff posture and beetlelike precision, his face wrinkled into a permanent scowl and his voice lowered into a disagreeable bark. A dyed-in-the-wool agency man and devout Opus Dei Catholic, Hanssen devotes himself to work, family and God with the same ascetic rigor, sinning by night and begging forgiveness by day. And Cooper is the kind of actor who gets so deeply under the skin of a character that you stop thinking about a performer in a role and instead see only Hanssen and the high drama he was playing out for the better part of his career. Here is one of the best American actors in one of his best parts.

It would seem the natural Hollywood impulse to turn the story of Hanssen, whose betrayal is the greatest the FBI has ever known, into a cat-and-mouse nail biter full of shadowy figures speaking in code and furtively exchanging unmarked packages under cover of dark. But much like Hanssen himself, Breach, which was co-written and directed by Billy Ray,remains cool to the touch, and all the more queasily fascinating for it. As in his accomplished 2003 debut feature, Shattered Glass, which chronicled the downfall of New Republic journalist Stephen Glass, Ray seems less interested in anatomizing a remarkable deception than in painting a portrait of misguided American ambition. He has made another movie that is, at least in part, about the drive to rise above mediocrity and how it can twist its bearer into machinations of which even those closest to him would not have deemed him capable. For if the motives behind Hanssen’s actions remain opaque to this day, this much is for certain: He longed to make a name for himself, and that he did.

When Breach begins, Hanssen has just been assigned to head up a new FBI division called Information Assurance, which will supposedly make use of his computer expertise to add, of all things, new safeguards to the agency’s classified computer files. He is given an assistant in the form of 26-year-old agent-in-training Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe), who initially believes he has been assigned to investigate Hanssen on allegations of sexual misconduct. At first, the two make for a very odd couple. The apprentice is wide-eyed and sees a bright future for himself — in his spare time, he writes fat reports about possible agency improvements that go unread on his superiors’ desks. The master has been wizened by time and the realization that even the FBI is not immune from favoritism and glad-handing. Then Hanssen lets his guard down, and the two men grow closer, even as O’Neill is made aware of the full scope of Hanssen’s crimes and of the part he must play in tightening the noose around his mentor’s neck.

The procedural scenes in Breach — its depiction of the 500-man (and -woman) task force charged with exposing Hanssen’s treason — are by far the least interesting, no matter the presence of Laura Linney as the special agent who recruits O’Neill. What intrigues Ray, after all, is less the existence of Hanssen’s treachery than the fact that it was so successfully concealed. Nobody much liked Hanssen, we gather — his somber demeanor even earned him the nickname “Dr. Death” from colleagues — but they believed him as the morally upstanding husband and father he pretended to be. And so the longer it stays onscreen, the less Breach resembles a thriller and the more it becomes a study in our willingness — perhaps our need — to believe in appearances at the expense of realities. And that is surely a lesson whose relevance does not end at the case of Robert Hanssen.

Did Hanssen spy because he was the abused son of a distant and domineering father? Or because he was indignant about having been passed over for promotion? Or merely because he had lost faith in those solemn and supposedly impermeable virtues upon which our country is founded? Ray does not assume to know in that de rigueur Freudian manner by which filmmakers attempt to engender empathy for madmen. (This is not, lest you think otherwise, Hanssen Rising). But Breach finally sees Hanssen less as an abject bogeyman — the Benedict Arnold of the millennium — than as a genetic mutation of the American success ethic: It shows us how easily an Eric O’Neill might become a Robert Hanssen, and it asks us if we can still become outraged by one man’s deceptions in an age of far greater governmental fictions.

BREACH | Directed by BILLY RAY | Written by ADAM MAZER, WILLIAM ROTKO and RAY, from a story by MAZER and ROTKO | Produced by BOBBY NEWMYER, SCOTT STRAUSS and SCOTT KROOPF | Released by Universal | Citywide

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