Chris Cooper has a face that could slow a clock. In the happiest of times his expressions range, at a measured pace, from thoughtful through meditative to mournful. In Billy Ray's thriller Breach, he's got very little to be happy about. He plays Robert Hanssen, a tortured and devious FBI agent who was a spy for the Soviet Union. Hanssen was arrested in 2001, and won the dubious distinction of being the most notorious turncoat in the bureau's history. The movie is serious, intelligent, intentionally claustrophobic and awfully
somber - you may remember it in black and white, though it was shot in color (by the masterful Tak Fujimoto). But you'll remember Cooper's performance for exactly what it is, an uncompromising study in the gradual decay of a soul.
That's not to suggest that the Robert Hanssen of this film might ever have been mistaken for a model of mental health. He's already under suspicion when the story begins. In hopes of gaining the suspects trust, the FBI sends a young agent-in-training, Eric O'Neill, to work as Hanssen's assistant - he's played by Ryan Phillippe. The man O'Neill finds is a walking definition of alienation.
He's a computer whiz who seethes with arrogant anger at the stupidity of his superiors. He quivers with jealousy, religious zealotry, glib hypocrisy and a haughty correctitude that covers sexual deviancy. On top of that he dislikes women in pants suits: he says "she world doesn't need any more Hillary Clintons." (This is the beginning of the George W. Bush years.) Since we know what the FBI only suspects, that Hanssen has been selling classified documents to the Soviets for decades, it's remarkable that we see him as anything but loathsome. Yet we do, and so does young Eric O'Neill, who comes to admire Hanssen's prickly intellect and buried humanity.
The film's essentially a battle of wits between the young, inexperienced O'Neill and his elusive, dangerously canny quarry. (One close-up pauses briefly on two DVDs in Hanssen's car: The Mask of Zorro and Entrapment. It seems to be a whimsical comment on the cat-and-mouse plot, but in fact Hanssen was convinced that his wife was a Catherine Zeta-Jones lookalike.) As trust grows between the two men, so does the shrewdness of O'Neill's spy craft. He's an interesting character in his turn, despite some clumsiness in the
writing, and Ryan Phillipe more than holds his own in a film that's inevitably dominated by the older actor.
Laura Linney is Kate Burroughs, an FBI agent who says she has no life, not even a cat. Linney has no part; this uncommonly graceful actress seems sandbagged by Kate's burden of exposition. The script sticks with the facts of the case by declining to speculate why its
close-mouthed antihero with his vacuum-sealed spirit did what he did. I guess this reticence is commendable, given the possibilities for banalities, but it isn't very satisfying as drama.
Billy Ray's previous film was an impressive debut feature called Shattered Glass, and that was also an entrapment thriller. The quarry was Stephen Glass, a serial prevaricator who dazzled readers of The New Republic in the 1990's with reporting pieces that had everything going for them except truth. The filmmaker's touch in that one was light; he got off on the crazy enthusiasm of his scribbler subject. The doomy subject of Breach has dictated a different style that I don't readily respond- deliberate pace, meaningful scowls,
encroaching shadows. Still, Chris Cooper makes the movie worthwhile. He's a dark star in a contracting universe.