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‘Breach’ is a truly adult thriller

Director Billy Ray creates a spy-vs.-mole tale that is often worthy of Hitchcock. By John Hartl

The first truly adult American film of the new year, Billy Ray’s “Breach” is the mostly true story of Robert Hanssen, an FBI agent who became a spy for the Soviets. Currently serving a life sentence, he was responsible for at least three deaths and the loss of billions of dollars.

Chris Cooper plays him as a mass of contradictions: smart and tough, bigoted and sentimental, deeply religious yet apparently addicted to internet porn — and self-pitying in a way that allows him to rationalize his lethal betrayals and call them patriotic. The role is an actor’s dream, and Cooper brilliantly captures the enigmatic personality at its center.

We get to know Hanssen through Eric O’Neill, a cocky agent-in-training who has been assigned to assist him—and catch him in an act of treason. At first Hanssen humiliates him with boot-camp insults (“you really are as dumb as a bag of hammers”), but eventually he takes a paternal interest in the younger man.

A bond develops, in spite of the fact that Hanssen is suspicious and O’Neill feels less and less comfortable with his role as an informer. He realizes that Hanssen must be outed, but at what cost? Does he really want to do this kind of work for a living? Laura Linney, terrific as the unmarried FBI veteran who advises O’Neill, doesn’t offer much hope. “I don’t even have a cat,” she claims.

Ray and his co-writers, Adam Mazer and William Rotko, use O’Neill’s small lies and hypocrisies to reflect on Hanssen’s much larger and more damaging fabrications. There’s a hall-of-mirrors quality about their deceptions. On the surface, Hanssen seems the perfect husband and churchgoer, while O’Neill is so stressed out he becomes impossible to live with. 

Ray achieved something similar, if on a smaller scale, in his 2003 film, “Shattered Glass,” based on the life of New Republic reporter Stephen Glass, whose imaginative articles turned out to be too colorful to be true. “Breach” complicates the situation by raising the stakes.

Ryan Phillippe plays O’Neill almost as a blank slate at first, but as O’Neill gets closer to Hanssen, Phillippe deftly explores the character’s doubts and compromises. A turning point is reached when Hanssen and his wife (Kathleen Quinlan) turn up at the apartment shared by O’Neill and his wife (Caroline Dhavernas) — and threaten to take over their lives.

As Ray tells it, this spy-vs.-mole tale is often worthy of Hitchcock, especially the Hitchcock who humanized spies and made their difficult choices so involving. As it does in Hitchcock’s “Notorious,” espionage ultimately takes a back seat to the alliances people form in spite of their intentions. 

It would be so easy (and so uninteresting) if monsters like Hanssen were merely bad, or if informers like O’Neill were one-dimensionally good, but the tension in “Breach” comes from getting to know them and realize their frailties. Prayer is presented as a crutch for Hanssen through much of the film. By the end, it’s so much more than that.