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Deceit, in layers

In `Breach,' Chris Cooper turns a double life into an intense whole.

February 16, 2007|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

FILLED with tension, deception and bravura acting, "Breach" is a crackling tale of real-life espionage that doubles as a compelling psychological drama. Its core is not the minutiae of spying but the push-pull complexities of intricate human relationships, and in Ryan Phillippe, Laura Linney and especially the formidable Chris Cooper, it has the cast to bring it all intensely alive.

The title comes from a clip of a Feb. 19, 2001, news conference statement by John Ashcroft that opens the film. Describing the arrest the day before of veteran FBI agent Robert Hanssen for spying, the then attorney general described "a very serious breach in the security of the United States." Which turned out to be something of an understatement.

For in his 22 years of stealing information for Moscow, Hanssen had handed over more than 6,000 pages of documents and 26 computer diskettes, and he had also caused the deaths of agents working for this country. He did so much damage to American security that the extent of it is still classified information.

It took enormous confidence for director Billy Ray (who co- wrote the script with Adam Mazer and William Rotko) to begin "Breach" this way, to voluntarily jettison the potential hook of "is he or isn't he guilty" that a lesser film would have held on to for dear life. "Breach," however, is so strong, so able to create palpable tension even though the outcome is known, that it doesn't need any extra help.

One reason for "Breach's" strength is that Ray (as witness his previous "Shattered Glass," the tale of a serial fabricator who wrote for the New Republic magazine) has a gift for this kind of thing. In addition to being based-on-fact, inside-Washington stories, both films share an interest in deceptive rule-breakers who are nothing like what they seem. "I'm fascinated by duplicity and fascinated by stories that are about integrity," Ray told National Public Radio. "Everything is loaded with subtext."

Perhaps because he has done this story before, Ray and his co-writers have filled "Breach" with the kind of involving situations and smart dialogue that make gifted actors grateful. You can literally feel the performers' excitement at having roles this complex. That's especially true of Cooper, though his Robert Hanssen is the character we get to know last.

Introduced two months before Ashcroft's announcement is Eric O'Neill (Phillippe), an earnest, young FBI trainee happily married to the winsome Juliana (Caroline Dhavernas). He's ambitious, eager to be promoted as soon as possible, so when special agent Kate Burroughs (Linney) calls him in and says he'll be working for her on an assignment that sounds dicey, he is none too pleased.

O'Neill's new job is to work for and clandestinely keep an eye on Hanssen, an agent with 25 years' service who is the bureau's most knowledgeable Soviet agent and "the best computer guy we've got." He is also suspected, Burroughs says, of kinky sexual habits. Though the audience is aware that Hanssen is also thought to be a spy, O'Neill is initially kept in the dark about this and chafes at being on some kind of "perversion detail."

An actor whose charisma is of a cold, stoical nature, Phillippe is well cast as someone who will have to play a double game with a world-class double agent. And no actress is better than the accomplished Linney at personalizing smart, powerful women and making sure that nothing negative or neurotic attaches to their power.

Though "Breach" takes some liberties with reality, it largely sticks to the facts of the situation, which has the young trainee matching wits with his boss on a potentially life-and-death level. Working to enhance the strong writing, directing and acting are the cool cinematography of frequent Jonathan Demme collaborator Tak Fujimoto and a score by Mychael Danna that doles out emotion in carefully controlled doses.

Good as all these aspects are, however, it is Cooper as the infinitely complicated and contradictory Hanssen who dominates "Breach" the same way the man he portrays ran roughshod over his own world, setting the rules and demolishing them with equal aplomb.

Though slight in stature, Cooper's Hanssen is such a formidable presence he terrifies everyone he comes into contact with. Ferociously smart, ruthless and abrasive with a reflexively suspicious mind, Hanssen almost literally grinds people up. And despite his espionage activities he is a devout Roman Catholic, a happily married, hard-core conservative (Kathleen Quinlan has an effective cameo as his wife) who disapproves of women in pantsuits and despises godless communism. He was ultimately such a mystery to those who knew him that his pastor was quoted as saying, "I guess I will have God first explain the Trinity to me, and then Bob Hanssen."

It is part of Cooper's success with Hanssen's character that he, in a sense, plays all his contradictions as if they don't exist, casually creating layers of complexity as if they were the most natural things in the world. As his past work, including his Oscar for "Adaptation," demonstrate, Cooper has a great gift for bringing a fierce reality to his characters, and his bear of a performance here more or less leaps off the screen and throttles you. As much as we thought we knew how good an actor this man is, "Breach" makes us think again.

"Breach." MPAA rating: PG-13, for language, sexual material and drug content. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes. In general release.

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