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Breach

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In the corridor of power: Chris Cooper
  • In the corridor of power: Chris Cooper

We know exactly how this thriller based on actual events will end. Breach opens with a news clip of then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft announcing the apprehension of Robert Hanssen, a career FBI analyst who sold secrets to the Soviets for 15 years. Breach flashes back to depict the weeks immediately prior, when the bureau's net closed in on Hanssen.

Despite our foreknowledge, Billy Ray's docudrama is gripping entertainment. Ray sets up Hanssen's final days at the FBI as a character study, wrapped in a spy-versus-spy cat-and-mouse game. A young FBI computer whiz, Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe), is assigned to "ride Hanssen's desk," to act as his aide while he searches for a smoking gun. Hanssen (Chris Cooper) is a calculating sourpuss, but O'Neill, playing the compliant apprentice, gains just enough trust to set the two-timer up for his fall.

There's a splash of locked-cabinet and dark-rainy-night intrigue, but the central mystery of Breach is set in the fluorescent-lit hallways of bureaucracy, trod by men in dark blue suits and even duller ties. Why would such a devoutly religious man as Hanssen, a deeply committed careerist and a true-blooded patriot, commit such uncharacteristic acts? The clues are there: the peevishness that hides long-simmering rage; the tendency to test both people and systems for weakness; a personal split between rigid Catholicism and secret pornographic acts; and the burden of demons that suggests a need to be caught.

Phillippe comes off as a bland and uninteresting foil, though perhaps intentionally. It doesn't much matter because Breach is Chris Cooper's show. Cooper, a long-respected character actor, makes Hanssen both fearsome and fearful. His arrogance and cold, hard eyes are withering; yet Cooper, slumped and slightly awkward, generates some sympathy for Hanssen. This is a man caught in the joyless, windowless room that is his life, a trap created of his own hubris.

This is Ray's second venture into the myopic hothouse that is institutional Washington, D.C. In 2003's Shattered Glass, he turned another set of headlines, about a disgraced New Republic writer, into a study of how the city's scramble for power breeds amorality. While Hanssen is explicitly guilty, Breach finds plenty of moral grayness employed in the name of justice. When the FBI turns devious to bust one of its own -- doing wrong to do right -- we wonder, "Just how much of that goes on?"

Breach leaves what might have driven Hanssen an open question. Under arrest, Hanssen demurs: "The why doesn't mean a thing." Hanssen netted money and power -- presumably satisfactory byproducts. But Breach left me thinking that the likeliest motivation for his outrageous acts was first, that he could -- and then, because nobody noticed.

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