Traitors of Trust: 'Breach' Goes to the Soul of a Spy

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 16, 2007

The young director Billy Ray is quickly emerging as the John Ford of Washington. He tells mythic tales of ambition and folly, against a monument valley all will recognize as uniquely American. But his monuments aren't buttes outlined against a bright desert sky. They are filing cabinets, desks littered with half-full Styrofoam coffee cups, the square solidity of computer screens. If there's brightness, it's the brightness of the humming fluorescents, which cast a pellucid gleam on the grim mugs of us office rats who toil in the bullpens and committee meetings of the low, gray D.C. cityscape.

Needless to say, the one thing this landscape is missing is a John Wayne figure. To some degree, the subject of Ray's work is the absence of John Wayne: His is a post-heroic culture.

Ray broke through in 2003 with "Shattered Glass," an account of a journalistic scandal at the New Republic, which caught exactly the nuances of office warfare, waged hard and without mercy. He's now followed that with "Breach," a superior account of the bring-down of the notorious FBI mole Robert Hanssen, who is said to have done the most damage to U.S. security of any traitor in history.

Ray finds a curious and unexpected angle on the material. Unlike the broader "Master Spy: The Robert Hanssen Story," written by Norman Mailer and starring William Hurt, of the 2002 TV season (I reviewed it, not that I remember anything about it and even had to look it up to get the title right), it's not a panoramic view of Hanssen's perfidy over the years.

In fact, it doesn't even dramatize the traitor's espionage activities on behalf of the Soviet Union; he's never seen slipping docs to the KGB until Minute 108 of 110, during his arrest (in 2001). As for his parallel life as the allegedly "platonic" friend of a Washington stripper for whom he bought a Benz and with whom he globe-trotted, that, too, is never dramatized. His flamboyant sexual practices -- secretly taping his love sessions with his wife and having a friend watch; narrating his erotic adventures online -- are referenced but not exhaustively documented.

Instead we see Hanssen (played by Chris Cooper as a dark Lucifer fallen from grace) entirely from the point of view of his assistant and counter-mole, a young FBI surveillance officer (not yet a Special Agent) named Eric O'Neill. He's stolidly played by Ryan Phillippe, who, after this film and "Flags of Our Fathers," seems to have inherited the dutiful-kid role once played by Van Johnson.

The earnest, somber movie's one concession to pop culture is its central conceit, which recalls "The Silence of the Lambs": In "Breach," O'Neill is a sort of a male Clarice Starling. It's the same gig, really: A youngster, smart but not yet salty (and not yet Special), is selected for immersion with a world-class sociopath and deviant. The FBI supervisors know that he (or she) has a chance where the more sophisticated may fail, because, knowing nothing and hiding nothing, the neophyte will be unreadable by the normally uber-perceptive arch-fiend. Thus did Starling voyage out to Baltimore to interview the chained and masked Hannibal Lecter; thus does O'Neill find himself appointed assistant, clerk and gofer to the newly appointed Bureau Director of Computer Assurance Services.

Except there is no Department of Computer Assurance Services. It's endgame. Hanssen's secrets have been blown by two defectors, unbeknownst to him; a whole unit, headquartered just down the hall (he passes the closed door every day) has been set up to catch him red-handed and get that sure conviction, while isolating him so he can do no more damage. It is to this unit that O'Neill's true allegiance must belong, even if he doesn't know it at first. He thinks they've recruited him because of the sexual deviancy allegations against Hanssen.

Thus he enters his new job as factotum and traitor with a heavy heart. He's on the pervert detail, ugh. He finds the new boss brusque, demanding, hardworking, controlling but strangely decent and not a little charismatic and certainly insightful as to the actual nature of the agency's culture and bureaucratic ways. In fact, in spite of himself O'Neill begins to develop a grudging admiration for his quarry, even, eventually, an emotional intimacy, though he resents the older man's lectures and religious proselytizing and creepy behavior around O'Neill's wife, played by Caroline Dhavernas. And he doesn't like what the bureau, represented by the iron presence of supervisory agent Kate Burroughs (the great Laura Linney, tough as brass bushings), is requiring him to do -- go through the wastebaskets, peek into every nook and cranny and eventually separate the man from his Palm Pilot.

Possibly Ray and screenwriters Adam Mazer and William Rotko overdo this issue. When O'Neill must maneuver Hanssen away from his electronic gizmo, and plans go suddenly awry, the suspense is artificially jacked up until it seems like you're watching a safecracking caper or a commando mission to blow up a bridge. It would be a lot more convincing if all this took place behind enemy lines instead of in the big FBI building on Pennsylvania Avenue. It's their home territory, not his, so the only "danger" is administrative and the only "damage" to one's career, not to the nation's security.

The movie is at its best as it chronicles the stickiness of what might be called the inevitable Stockholm Syndrome. Certain activities -- catching spies, writing books about murderers, being kidnapped and held for ransom and so forth -- require you get close to and empathize with your enemy. It takes a harsh man to quell those natural feelings for a fellow being, even when you know he or she is "officially" bad. These are the struggles Phillippe's O'Neill deals with. You look the guy in the eye, you ask about his wife, you destroy him. Nothing personal, chum. Duty. But duty sometimes crushes the most dutiful, and the movie makes the point that its psychic costs are high: O'Neill quit the FBI after the case was closed, and his enemy and mentor was given a life sentence.

Breach (110 minutes at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for violence, sexual content and profanity.

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