Chris Cooper as FBI (double) agent Robert Hanssen in "Breach"
Despite February's drear, this may be the right time to open a film depicting the apprehension of the most injurious traitor in U.S. history. His name is Robert Hanssen, an FBI agent who was arrested in February, 2001 and sentenced to prison in May, 2002 for selling government secrets to the KGB. Hanssen gets to stay in a cell, alone, for 23 hours a day, but only until the moment he dies.
Two other spy films recently preceded "Breach," helping to breathe life back into the cloak and dagger genre: "Casino Royale" (Daniel Craig's resurrection of the fantastic Fleming franchise) and "The Good Shepherd" (Robert De Niro's direction of a spy tingler relating how the OSS morphed into the CIA).
Writer-director Billy Ray ("Shattered Glass"), with two other screenwriters (Adam Mazer and William Rotko), assembles a relatively true-to-life script based on neophyte FBI clerk, Eric O'Neill's (Ryan Phillippe) account of how he set up Hanssen---the wiliest of FBI vets---to drop sensitive, top secret documents in a plastic bag under a foot bridge in Foxstone Park in Vienna, VA.
Ray has put some thrill into this photoplay, but don't expect any Double-Oh-Seven shenanigans. This is a bit closer to the film in which Richard Burton almost makes it over the Berlin Wall. "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold" (1965) generates much sympathy for the fictional Alec Leamas in John le Carré's novel, but there is not so much as a tear shed for the real Robert Hanssen. How could there be? His spying cost the U.S. millions, as well as the death of double agents outed to the KGB by him. The extent to which the U.S. was made more vulnerable by what Hanssen squealed to the Russians will, most likely, remain forever classified.
The film's engine is Kansas Citian, Chris Cooper, who plays Hanssen so well that you may relish his character much as we've come to relish (if that's the right word) good old boy, Hannibal Lecter. No, Hanssen has no cannibalistic tendencies, but he does have somewhat of a, shall I say, deviation in how he conducts his sex life. He secretly videos he and his wife having intercourse so that a male friend of his can watch the real-time activity from another room in the Hanssen home. Mr. Hanssen also posted some such stuff on the internet that included his wife; none of which, at the time, Mrs. Hanssen knew.
But Hanssen was and (as the film plays it) is a deeply devout Catholic and a member of Opus Dei. He and his wife try to proselytize O'Neill's (also Catholic) young wife into the church, taking the couple to Mass and subtly pressuring the young woman to accept a more authoritarian take on theology.
Always hitting her mark, Laura Linney plays O'Neill's immediate FBI surperior. One gets a different taste with Linney's character as to how being an undercover agent for one's government may require slogging a large amount of lonely territory.
It's said that Robert Hanssen loved his country and hated Communism, yet gave Communists so much. They gave him money and diamonds in return. But, Hanssen seemed not to be driven by greed. Although the film doesn't tell us exactly what else motivated his treason, it suggests it was to satisfy his ego, to strive for perfection and discover the weaknesses of others. A complaining control freak in need of more attention for his intelligence might be another way to put it.
Whatever the case, Chris Cooper comes, full bore, to the task. But does Cooper's Hanssen prove or refute the great John le Carré line given to Richard Burton in "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold"? "I reserve the right to be ignorant. That's the Western way of life."
Addendum: My old broadcast friend of so many years, Mike Miller, once lived in Vienna, VA, not far from the park where Hanssen left his KGB goodie bag. Mike may wish to say more about it.