Billy Ray's new film Breach unfolds in the hazy shades of a Washington, D.C. winter -- steely blues and cold grays, concrete and frost outside and pale fluorescent light indoors. Junior FBI man Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe) is working counter-terrorism, snapping photos from hiding and working on new database methodologies in his spare time -- he's a keener, an eager beaver, and he wants to serve his country and his career. Bureau higher-up Burroughs (Laura Linney) tasks O'Neill with a very specific job -- working as the clerk to FBI data-maven Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper), who's heading up the project to create the Bureau's new data-storage and handling protocols ... and, according to Burroughs, is a 'sexual deviant.' O'Neill's supposed to write everything down, make observations, report only to Burroughs and not tell anyone -- even his wife Juliana (Caroline Dhavernas) about the truth of what he's doing. It's hard for O'Neill, but in another way, it's easy -- because, as it turns out, even he doesn't know the real truth of what he's doing.
As played by Cooper, Hanssen is a stiff-backed hard-ass: he hates the Bureau's bureaucracy, resents his office lacking a window, curses the current data-storage methodology the Bureau uses. He's a fervent Catholic, his life revolving around Latin mass and service to the Bureau. In a series of carefully-crafted scenes, O'Neill gets to know Hanssen a bit -- and while Hanssen is a jerk ("Your name is 'Clerk.' You call me 'Sir' or 'Boss.' ..."), O'Neill can't understand why he's being assigned to ride a guy whose biggest crime seems to be being unlikable. Confronting Burroughs about his assignment -- he used to be tracking terrorists, now he's wasting time babysitting a man two months from mandatory retirement -- Burroughs explains the truth behind the truth. Hanssen has been selling secrets to the Soviets. For the past 22 years.
It's too bad that Robert De Niro's big, glossy The Good Shepherd came along before Breach -- the fact is that the smaller, star-less film shoved out unloved during the barren movie-going month of February is actually the better film. There are similarities between the two -- both movies look at how, for good and for ill, American intelligence is run by a sealed community of pasty, preppy, paranoid men, some of whom have spent so much time in a hall of distorting mirrors they don't even know what they look like anymore. There's a reason why Hanssen's hard to catch: he's good. As Burroughs notes, "He spent 20 years out-thinking the Russians. ..." He's also a little nutty -- commenting to O'Neill " ... I disapprove of women in pantsuits." Cooper's a wildly under-rated actor -- while he may have gotten an Oscar for 2002's Adaptation, there's no doubt in my mind he deserved a nomination for 1996's Lone Star. And he plays Hanssen in small moments here -- the way he discards an inter-office memo with a flick of the wrist, or a slight intake of breath as he works his way around the circuit of the rosary -- that paint a lifelike portrait out of small, precise strokes.
As O'Neill, Phillippe kind of fades into the background -- which, you realize, is as it should be. Phillippe's better known as the ex-Mr. Witherspoon than he is as an actor, but there are high-points in his career -- like Way of the Gun -- that demonstrate he's not just a pretty face. At the same time, O'Neill is just one part of the story here -- one of the film's nicer moments comes as Burroughs is explaining the real reason the Bureau's after Hanssen, and she casually notes "There are some people I'd like you to meet. ..." and introduces O'Neill to the 50-agent office that's been working on taking Hanssen down. Breach is matter-of-fact about the reality that O'Neill was one agent among many -- and also matter-of-fact that O'Neill was the only one in the room with the target. When Burroughs explains the stakes to O'Neill -- that Hanssen's the biggest traitor in the history of American intelligence -- it's not clumsy exposition or tension-heightening hyperbole: It's just the facts.
Breach doesn't just get the cloak-and-dagger stuff right -- as in a scene where O'Neill has to copy the data card from Hanssen's Palm Pilot surreptitiously while his boss is moving around the building, or a late-night surprise visit from an increasingly-unstable Hanssen. It also paints an effective portrait of the petty office politics of the FBI as well -- rancor over missed promotions, office-supplies protocol and late nights of bad coffee. (There are two nice bits of casting in FBI agent roles that help Breach along, actually -- Dennis Haysbert and Gary Cole play superiors on the Hanssen case, which means you get to invoke both 24 and Office Space in your head.) And one of the nicest, simples shots in Breach -- FBI building staff taking down two photos of Bill Clinton and Janet Reno, replacing them with photos of George W. Bush and John Ashcroft -- not only sets the film's 2001 timeframe but also makes the point succinctly that Hanssen's betrayal transcended anything as simple as party politics.
Billy Ray's previous film, Shattered Glass, was a similar real-life drama, portraying the fabrications and evasions of disgraced New Republic writer Stephen Glass. In Breach, he's on familiar ground -- namely, lies, the lying liars who tell them and the people who catch them -- but the stakes are higher: Glass was a bad journalist, be he wasn't explicitly responsible for the deaths of American intelligence assets. But just as in Shattered Glass, Breach has a great procedural energy to it -- capturing how fighting evil involves taking good notes, double-checking things, doing lots of meetings and having the strength to confront people you actually like. Breach isn't a run-and-gun thriller, and Hanssen isn't some megalomaniacal Bond villain with an eye patch and a Persian cat -- but now and then, a taste of real evil can come as a startling, pleasant change from the sugared-up, over-carbonated counterfeit Hollywood loves to give us. Breach has the facts and shape of real events; it also has real excitement and true craft behind it, which is just one part of the reason why it's such a pleasure to watch.