Billy Ray performed his first autopsy on trust with his directorial debut, Shattered Glass (2003). In this earlier film he reconstructed the career of Stephen Glass, a promising writer for The New Republic, who won accolades for his investigative reporting of incidents that he simply concocted on his laptop. Once the editor raised questions about his work, Glass’s colleagues closed ranks to defend him. They simply could not believe that one of their own would deceive them and their readers. Glass himself never really understands that he has betrayed his profession. In his mind, he simply provides interesting articles, certainly more interesting than if he had stuck to verifiable facts. How else does one rise to prominence as a journalist? His career, his future is at stake if he admits anything, even to himself. At first, only the editor seems to realize that the credibility of every other story in the magazine has been compromised by Glass’s activities.
In Breach Billy Ray raises the stakes considerably. As in the earlier film, he bases his story on actual events, this time those surrounding the arrest and conviction of Robert Hanssen, an F.B.I. data analyst who had been handing secrets to the Soviet Union, and then to the Russians, for 22 years before he was finally caught in the act. His story arises from Cold War paranoia, an atmosphere that bred suspicion in every move of the enemy. Both Hanssen and the Bureau alike were creatures of that era. They doubted all outsiders, even the C.I.A., but much like soldiers in a shooting war, the agents entrusted with their nation’s defense had to trust one another totally and without equivocation. Betrayal was unthinkable. When they suspect that sensitive information is passing to the other side, the F.B.I. investigators believe some other agency must have been penetrated. The agent entrusted to head a taskforce to examine the possible failure in security is Robert Hanssen himself.
The film begins with a clip of the then Attorney-General John Ashcroft making the announcement that the greatest security breach in U.S. history has been closed, and the traitor Robert Hanssen has been taken into custody. With the outcome known from the outset, the film transcends the usual whodunit technique of lesser spy stories. It picks up the narrative a mere two months before the climax. The F.B.I. has been tracking Hanssen for years, waiting for him to make the mistake that will enable them to pursue the charge of espionage rather than a lesser charge of mishandling secret information. The script follows the fascinating interplay of characters as this drama reaches its crescendo.
Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe) is a green intern, doing routine surveillance work in the hope of eventually becoming an F.B.I. agent. Bright and ambitious, he is eager to please and impress his superiors, and he knows that fieldwork is the path to success in the organization. When Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney), the district supervisor, calls him in, he believes his time has come. He scarcely hides his disappointment when she puts him at a desk, as a clerk for Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper), one of their top data analysts. She explains only that Hanssen may be using his office computer for pornography. His misuse of government property could be an embarrassment to the F.B.I. O’Neill is instructed to observe Hanssen’s every move, however meaningless, and report directly to her. This will be a job of stupefying boredom.
And it will be an unpleasant job as well. Hanssen cultivates his disagreeability as though it were a badge of his importance. He makes a point of bullying his subordinates and letting them know they are under constant surveillance themselves. The slightest misstep will go on their records. Hanssen also needs to prove constantly that his is smarter than O’Neill. He enjoys making others feel uncomfortable. He has remarkable powers of observation, and he knows the working of the institution as well as any person alive. After all, he has survived as a traitor for nearly a quarter of a century at the heart of the nation’s counterintelligence operations.
Chris Cooper miraculously disappears within his complex character. He dominates the screen the way Hanssen dominates the small office he shares with O’Neill. His is the almost expressionless face of any anonymous bureaucrat in a government office, yet he seethes with contradictions. Yes, his suspected appetite for pornography proves real, but at the same time he revels in his dedication to a rigid form of 19th-century Catholicism. A convert from Lutheranism, he attends daily Mass (Latin on Sundays), says the rosary and has a crucifix and a statuette of the Blessed Virgin in his office. When he learns that O’Neill had attended the Jesuits’ Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C., he tries to rekindle a more militant piety in him and his East German wife, Juliana (Caroline Dhavernas), neither of whom, as more casual Catholics, enjoys Hanssen’s attention.
The collapse of trust within the Bureau reaches into the homes of the two families. Burroughs finally reveals to O’Neill the real purpose of his mission, and of course, he can say nothing to his wife about his mysterious disappearances, or about the pornographic videotape she discovers in their living room. Bonnie Hanssen (Kathleen Quinlan) knows nothing about the tapes, nor does she know that her husband has been secretly filming their most intimate moments and posting them on the Internet. An extremely fervent Catholic herself, she brought her husband into the church and has taken the O’Neills on as her next project in religious conversion.
The suspense arises from this interplay of complex personalities and from the risk each one runs in trying to betray the other. Burroughs uses O’Neill. She has dedicated her career to nailing Hanssen. She lives alone and eats TV dinners. Hanssen dislikes guns and will probably not turn to violence himself, but his actions have led others to be murdered, and agents have discovered a cache of automatic weapons in his car. O’Neill may be in danger, but protecting him, or even giving him the information to protect himself, might jeopardize the project, and thus destroy the very purpose of her career-defining project.
O’Neill is clearly over his head in trying to outwit and betray Hanssen. His lack of experience nearly ruins the operation at times, yet he has the native wit to salvage several bad situations. Ryan Phillippe gives the character a boyish charm that makes O’Neill’s lame explanations seem almost plausible. When Hanssen surprises O’Neill rummaging through his briefcase, O’Neill makes him believe that he came to the inner office to find a quiet place to say his Rosary.
The most complex character of all is, of course, Hanssen, and the script does nothing to violate the mystery of the man. It never tries to explain his actions. How does he manage three separate lives at once: the religious zealot, the pornographer and the traitor? What motivates him? Hanssen took over a million dollars in cash and diamonds from his contacts, but his lifestyle remained quite modest to the end. He scorns those who pick jobs that advance their careers, yet he seethes with resentment when others get offices with windows and he does not. He takes computers and artwork for his office without requisitions or scruple. He shows contempt for those who know less about the technology than he does and does not mask his feelings. He is outraged that the Soviets ran a better espionage service than the United States, while he sells his information to them. In the end, O’Neill dupes Hanssen into making the last drop, the one the agents had been hoping for, simply by telling him that he is a nobody. Above all, Hanssen needs recognition that he is somebody.
In a surprising coda, O’Neill simply walks away from the work. His brilliant service had assured his promotion, but the experience taught him that he did not want to live that way, nor did he want to submit his wife to that kind of life. He was right. A world without trust can be a terrible place for anyone, even Robert Hanssen.