When he learns he has been “tasked to headquarters,” FBI agent Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe) is almost disappointed. The new gig, assisting the head of the Bureau’s brand new Information Assurance division, is supposed to be a promotion, but it looks dull.
And one more thing: Eric is also instructed by his less-than-forthcoming assignment officer, Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney), to spy on Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper). Apparently, the guy’s devout Catholicism is a show: he’s a broadly defined sexual “pervert,” with multiple complaints from “female subordinates” in his file, as well as indications that he makes and trades porn. Maybe yucky, but not exactly the “targets of value” (suspected terrorists) that Eric’s been monitoring lately. Being young and ambitious, however, he imagines a good performance on this job will lead to better, higher profile assignments. And so he settles into a basement room outfitted with squeaky chairs and “antiquated” computers (it’s 2001, and as Eric enters the new office area, workers are replacing portraits of Clinton and Reno with Bush and Ashcroft), where he keeps his journal of Hanssen’s activities: “No detail is insignificant,” declares Kate.
In fact, all the details seem trivial, even as Cooper’s fine performance subtly draws attention to each one. Hanssen is ornery, precise, and ever ready for a fight: he greets Eric by repeating what he’s been told about him, that “you’re confident, bordering on cocky.” Eric is further embarrassed when Hanssen catches him snooping around his office and rebukes him sharply: “Your name is ‘Clerk,'” says Hanssen. “My name is ‘Sir’ or ‘Boss.'” Following, Hanssen observes that Eric — a Catholic like himself — should pray the rosary every day, as that would help him keep his priorities straight.
All this set-up is somewhat coy, if entertainingly meticulous. You already know what Eric doesn’t, namely, that Hanssen is no regular perv with porn on his hard drive. He is, rather, the most colossal spy against the U.S. ever, and has been selling secrets to the Russians for more than 20 years. Based on a notable “true story” (Hanssen was arrested in February 2001), the movie’s basic shape recalls director Billy Ray’s previous cat-and-mouse saga, Shattered Glass, in which Stephen Glass, a writer at The New Republic, was busted for fabricating stories. Like that film, this one offers brief sociopolitical context, focusing on the tense professional relationship that helped to expose the misconduct (in that case, Glass and his editor). And, here as before, the relationship and offenses are symptomatic of their time and place.
In this version, the culture indicted is masculine, old-school spy business, where the villain appears undone by a predictable mix of ego, ideology, and greed. Where Hanssen distrusts everyone, imagining himself the stoic man’s man who could never please his dad, Eric seeks his father’s (Bruce Davison) judgment, sort of: in a too-brief, somewhat cryptic scene, the son asks advice without revealing details (he’s a good soldier, his dad understands). Still, Eric has his Hanssenesque moments, proud of being able to “read” his man, but the film makes their differences more pronounced than their similarities. While Eric adheres to a moral code familiar in spy movies, Hanssen remains slippery.
This despite some seeming easily identified frames: Hanssen’s religious faith influences his conduct and expectations of others. Eric comes to admire this aspect as, like Hanssen, he seeks order in the FBI’s notoriously shadowy world. He tells Kate, “I’m starting to think I might not be the right person for this.” She insists he is, which makes him wonder if he was “chosen” because he’s Catholic. In part Eric’s concern has to do with the lies he has to tell everyone who isn’t Kate (and her stereotypically sad life, with a cat in a one-bedroom apartment, doesn’t look like a great payoff for devotion to the Bureau).
Eric’s dishonesty extends to his marriage. His perky, East German-born wife Juliana (Caroline Dhavernas) distrusts Hanssen immediately, seeing in his insistence that Eric attend mass and bring her, a “lapsed Protestant,” into his Catholic fold, an unnecessary extension of her husband’s “job.” Though her misgivings lead nowhere in the narrative (she occasions tension for Eric, but their relationship remains secondary to the men’s), she does voice her own insights about life inside an oppressive and immoral state.
At the same time (to contrast Eric with his prey), Bonnie Hanssen (Kathleen Quinlan) appears subservient in a Stepfordy way, her creepiness enhanced by a brief glimpse into the couple’s bedroom that may or may not be designed to convince you of his slightly discomforting passions. Their encounter includes dark shadows and prayer, perhaps giving credence to the Bureau’s interest in Hanssen’s sexual interests, or maybe making his spy work of a piece with his other corrupt proclivities.
According to Breach, Hanssen is produced (if not precisely driven) by an array of grievances. He disdains most FBI regulations, which suggests he sees through the patriotic know-all façade (“The FBI is a gun culture,” Hanssen observes. “You can’t advance unless you can shoot,” which he practices rigorously, being traditionally competitive). He disparages the Bureau’s “organizational arrogance,” lack of appreciation for his own work (“I could stay there another 100 years and still just be an afterthought”), and the rise of “women in pantsuits” (i.e., “lesbians”). He takes moderate pleasure in outwitting his superiors (“He’s smarter than all of us,” mutters Kate) and profits considerably from his secrets-selling.
But none of these possible motives quite explains Hanssen. That makes him considerably more compelling than Eric. While the latter’s lies are briefly costly (Eric furrows his brow repeatedly), they are also easily forgiven by film’s end. As the movie lapses into predictable business (crosscutting during a scene where Eric must delay Hanssen’s return to the office, climactic showdown in the woods, heavy-handed religious iconography), Eric comes out the hero.
Alternately, Hanssen remains a cipher. True, he insists to Eric, “I matter plenty,” suggesting that his ego is egregious. But he also realizes, on the occasion of his capture, “The why doesn’t mean a thing, does it?” Though lots of people try to figure out the why, for their own reasons, he’s right, in mundane and insidious ways. For the first, the damage is done, no matter why. But for the second, he is the logical end of FBI training and thinking. The “big picture” he sees is informed by deep convictions regarding patriotism and ethical order. It’s the same picture his fellows see, just slightly adjusted.