Inside the Mind of a Spy

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Karen Ballard / Universal Pictures / AP

Ryan Phillippe, left, and Chris Cooper in a scene from the movie Breach.

As if we don't have enough worries about national security, Breach obliges us to think about the deeply weird (and by most of us half-forgotten) case of Robert Hanssen, the FBI agent who for a couple of decades enriched himself by passing classified documents to the Soviet Union as well as to its heirs and assigns. When he was arrested in 2001, his case seemed to be just another of those fairly routine lapses in security that afflict all great powers. Some people will spy. Some of them will get caught. Life tends to go on. Who knew how entertainingly, if sometimes scarily, bent Hanssen — brilliantly played in director Bully Ray's film by Chris Cooper — was?

Well, it turns out that a fellow named Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillipe) got a pretty good idea about that pretty quickly. He was an ambitious young FBI trainee recruited by the counter-espionage team headed by Laura Linney's Kate Burroughs to be Hanssen's assistant and to mole his way into the wack-job's confidence. In the movie the kid is eager and innocent, and eventually becomes so obsessed with his prey that he is endangering his marriage to pretty, sensible Juliana (Caroline Dhavernas). For Hanssen is something more than the mere neat freak he first appears to be. He is also both a devout, mass-every-day Catholic and an equally devout purveyor-consumer of pornography, some of which features his sweetly simple wife (with or without her consent is unclear in the film). The man gives new meaning to F. Scott Fitzgerald's notion that the test of a good mind is the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts simultaneously. Which says nothing about the fact that a man whose political views appear to shade toward the right-wing-crazy end of the spectrum is among Russia's most valuable assets in the secret world.

Cooper's performance as this character is nothing short of astonishing: it encompasses a rigid posture, a snappish disposition and a careless contempt for agency protocol. One of the first things he does is send O'Neill out to steal a new computer from their colleagues down the hall. What begins to emerge, almost inferentially from Cooper's taciturn playing, is a portrait of a sharp knife nestled in drawer full of dull ones. A man this bright should have been on the bureau's fast track. Instead, he's on a side track, chugging along a bureaucratic road to nowhere. Hanssen's fuming impatience with the patronizing doofuses who have held him back is well, even comically, stated in the script written by Ray in collaboration with Adam Mazer and William Rotko. So is the barely suppressed tension his double life imposes on him.

Yet, despite knowing that he is in all probability a master spy, O'Neill is almost seduced by him against his will. The man's interest in developing the kid's seriously lapsed spiritual life may be a little creepy, but we see that it arises out of authentic concern. We also see that O'Neill can't help but admire a mentor who shows him how to game whatever system they're caught up in, can't help beginning to think that a good heart my be beating beneath his cheap gray suit. The beginnings of this surrogate father-son relationship grants the film its quirky humanity.

But its deepest pleasure lies in the enigma of motivation. Its true that Hanssen made a fair amount of money from the Soviets, but that does not seem to be what's driving him. He just goes on living a modest middle-class existence. Nor does he bear any resemblance to certain Cold War-era spies, who served communist ideology out of some sort of (misplaced) idealism. It was rather the opposite with him. Slowly, it steals across you that he was acting out of the desire to prove just how smart he was, how superior he was to his, well, superiors. Does he suspect them of suspecting him? The movie doesn't say, but one rather thinks that, in his arrogance, he did not. It doesn't toy with the possibility that he may have wanted to be caught, either. But it would have been logical. Where's the fun in running circles around the plodding counterspies for a couple of decades if the story does not come in the end make the newspapers, thus making them look like fools.

There is, however, a dark side to Hanssen's excellent adventure. As the film makes clear, a lot of American agents in the former Soviet Union lost their lives because of information he supplied. He may have been playing a game, but they, alas, were not. He seems never to have counted that consequence. Caught and convicted, he is being held in solitary confinement in a maximum security prison, allowed out of his cell for just one hour a day. Should one imagine him still chortling over his dark accomplishments? Or is he, at last, burdened by regret? It's impossible to say. What one can say, however, is that his story — much more a study in enigmatic character than an exercise in suspense — makes a very good movie: subtle, complex, bleakly funny at times, but always utterly enveloping, one of the great studies in profoundly abnormal psychology.