Breach
Directed by Billy Ray
Starring Chris Cooper, Ryan Phillippe, Laura Linney | Universal | 110 minutes

Breach is a film that might offend some readers, but its subject is certainly of interest. It tells the story of the last two months that Robert Hanssen spent with the FBI. Hanssen, you may remember, turned out to be the most damaging traitor in US. history. For twenty years he spied for the Soviet Union, and when that fell, for Russia. He also belonged to the Catholic institution Opus Dei.

Norman Mailer wrote an earlier version of the Hanssen story called Master Spy (2002), starring William Hurt. This was a TV mini-series that went on for four hours and attempted to cover Hanssen’s entire life: his oppressive police chief father; his relationship with a stripper; his secret filming of conjugal relations with this wife, which he then sent to his best friend; as well as his dealings with his Soviet counterparts in the KGB and the FBI’s eventual discovery of his treachery. Artistically, the results were mediocre. Hurt played the part too passively to carry the Freudian interpretation Mailer gave the lurid events.

Billy Ray, the director and one of the writers of Breach, takes a different approach. Instead of “explaining” Hanssen by showing his life, he introduces into the story Eric O’Neill (Ryan Philippe), who did not even figure in the 2002 version. O’Neil is the young employee whom the FBI placed in Hanssen’s office in order to spy on him. This turns the biography of Hanssen into a kind of mentor/apprentice, father/son drama not unlike the excellent Donnie Brasco (1997), in which the FBI also directed Brasco (Johnny Depp) to infiltrate the mob and exploit his relationship with the older, trusting mobster, Al Pacino. In both cases the films gain complexity because the good guy agent must lie, cheat, and ultimately betray the bad guy, with whom the audience has developed some sympathy, even with someone as “creepy” as Hanssen.

Much of the success of the film depends on the brilliant performance by Chris Cooper, who plays Hanssen. O’Neill’s control officer, Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney) tells him only that Hanssen is under departmental surveillance because of his kinky sexual activities. But instead of discovering a pervert, O’Neill sees a very cranky, uptight guy who is disgusted with the failings of the FBI: its turf wars, waste, faulty procedures, bureaucracy, and its being more of a “gun culture” than an intelligence gathering one. As Hanssen and O’Neill interact, Hanssen warms to O’Neill and O’Neill begins to respect Hanssen.

When O’Neill complains to Burroughs that his surveillance of Hanssen has no significance, she reveals to him that his real job is to catch Hanssen in the act of spying. From one point of view, her long exposition of Hanssen’s crimes and the losses he has caused diminishes the detective work of the plot, but it manages to keep the focus of the film on the personal relationships between O’Neill and Hanssen and then, as the screw turns, between O’Neill and his young bride, Juliana (Caroline Dhavernas), for he must lie and deceive her as well as his boss.

All this makes for genuine drama and three-dimensional characterizations, not the usual Mission Impossible sensationalism. The film makes a point of not even trying to explain Hanssen’s bizarre behavior and treachery, to answer the question “Why?” Rather through Cooper’s superb acting and O’Neill’s day-to-day perspective of him, it infers some possible solutions to what ultimately must be the mystery of evil. Ray leaves such interpretation up to the audience. For instance, we learn of Hanssen’s wounded pride over not achieving greater status within the Agency. A desire to show it up and prove his superiority could have motivated his actions. His prurient sexual activities could be related to his expressed homophobia, or, and this is where the film becomes troublesome, to his Catholicism.

Hanssen is devout. He goes to daily mass, to confession; he prays the Rosary. And he tries to persuade O’Neill, a non-practicing cradle Catholic, to do the same. All this seems innocent enough, except that the audience knows from the outset that Hanssen is a traitor as well as a pervert, and the film presents no normal practicing Catholic as a dramatic variation or ideological corrective to him. As a result the film implicitly equates “creepiness” and deep neurosis if not insanity with norms of Catholic piety. The scenes of Hanssen and his wife Bonnie (Kathleen Quinlan)’s attempting to befriend Mrs O’Neill and bring her into the Catholic fold only enforce this negative view. In one climactic moment, Mrs O’Neill exclaims she does not wish to spend the rest of her life, like Mrs Hanssen, being pregnant and clueless.

Mercifully, Opus Dei, for the most part, is left out of the film. This is no Da Vinci Code. Except that at one moment of confrontation between the two men, O’Neill complains that his wife does not want to hear any more “lectures” about Opus Dei. Undoubtedly, many viewers of the film will miss this connection between Opus Dei and Hanssen. But what I notice is that many of the reviews of the film posted on the indispensable Internet Movie Data Base, speak of Hanssen’s being a “fanatic” Catholic, as though zeal can be equated with both kookiness and treachery.

For anyone familiar with the teaching of St Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei, Hanssen represents a colossal irony. Instead of practicing the “unity of life,” that is, the synthesis of one’s supernatural beliefs with one’s natural behavior at work and in marriage, Hanssen lived in extreme disunity and derangement, a life antithetical to all the principles of Opus Dei. Curiously enough, the film supports this principle, for at the end, O’Neill, his marriage threatened by the kind of work he must perform, gives up his ambition to be an agent and leaves the FBI so he can be a better husband. The credits tell us not only that he served as an advisor on the film, but also that he became a lawyer.

His participation no doubt contributed to Cooper’s understanding of the role and the authenticity with which the film presents the tormented Hanssen. It misses only one item. It omits what according to other testimonies were Hanssen’s words as he was being arrested. “What took you so long?”

William Park is a veteran film reviewer and the author of “Hollywood: An Epic Production”, a highly praised verse history of American cinema. He lives in California.