"Breach" is about the taking down of FBI operative Robert Hanssen, the most destructive spy in American history. Arrested in February 2001, he was found guilty of spying for the Russians for 22 of his 25 years of service.
To the filmmakers's credit, we never feel we're watching a docudrama, and this has everything to do with the performance of Chris Cooper as Hanssen. Cooper inhabits a character who is, at heart, a cipher, and yet he gives him human weight.
As Eric O'Neill, the young agent-in- training who brings him down, Ryan Phillippe has in some ways as difficult a role – he has to play opposite the cipher.
Director Billy Ray ("Shattered Glass") and his screenwriters Adam Mazer and William Rotko have provided a straight-ahead framework for these performances. They understand that, as repugnant as Hanssen's actions were, he was a person, not a monster. What they don't try to do is offer an open-and-shut rationale for why he did what he did. They leave the mystery open. (Hanssen, who is serving a life sentence, has never explained his actions.)
When the film begins, O'Neill, a special surveillance operative, is recruited by Special Agent Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney) to spy on Hanssen under the guise of being his assistant.
A Jesuit-trained law student who applied to the FBI instead of, as was the family tradition, Annapolis, O'Neill grudgingly warms to Hanssen, a man who exudes wariness and threat. A devout Catholic, Hanssen tells O'Neill that he must pray the rosary every day. "God expects you to live your faith at all times," says the man who, as O'Neill discovers, provides friends with videotapes of himself having sex with his wife – not to mention his identifying of KGB agents who were acting as counterspies for the FBI.
Part of the film's vividness is in observing how O'Neill manages to elude the growing suspicions of this human lie detector. The close calls and split-second escapes are hair-raising because we realize what is at stake – even though we know in advance how this will all turn out. When O'Neill attempts to restrain Hanssen while, at a different location, Hanssen's car is being searched by the FBI, is especially harrowing. The two men wrangle on the Potomac Parkway, with the Lincoln Memorial in the background.
That's about as metaphoric as "Breach" gets. Billy Ray doesn't rub our noses in the story's dark ironies. He also doesn't make the mistake that "The Good Shepherd" made. That film starred Matt Damon as a CIA operative and his hollowness never filled in. Breach gives us a much denser portrait of a spy's outer and inner lives.
I could have done without the subplot about the ongoing suspicions of O'Neill's wife (Caroline Dhavernas) and what all this hide-and-seek is doing to their marriage. It's too familiar. And yet, on some level, we need it in the movie just to remind us that O'Neill was more than an automaton chasing a phantom – he was a guy whose job had real and personal repercussions. (Following the arrest, O'Neill, who worked as an adviser on the film, quit the bureau to work as a lawyer.)
Without Cooper's performance, "Breach" would have been a good, workmanlike thriller. His presence lifts it to a whole new level. So many movies about spies and moles and double agents leave you with a big gaping hole where its heart ought to be. The psychological insight Cooper brings to his portrait is so rich that it deserves to be called novelistic. Grade: B+
• Rated PG-13 for violence, sexual content, and language.