Reviewed By Doug Bentin
Posted 03/23/07 01:42:22

"Cat - Mouse - Cat - Mouse"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

The cat and mouse game that constitutes the action in “Breach” takes place from late December to Feb. 21, 2001, and yet there are no indicators on display that this is the season of brotherly love. That’s not a failing in the design. It’s a statement. Spying may be many things, but a sign of good will to men isn’t one of them.

Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper) is a 25-year veteran of the FBI. He’s in intelligence and he appears to be able to live with, if grouchily, the reality that “the Bureau is a gun culture,” and that promotions come from within the ranks of agents and not intell. He grumbles that Agent Rich Garces (Gary Cole) was assigned an office with a window.

Hanssen is sensitive to every apparent slight and insult. He’s stiff and sarcastic with his new clerk, Eric (Ryan Phillippe). He’s demanding and demeaning. He’s obsessive and pious. He’s been accused of sexual deviancy, and that is why Eric has been planted in his office to spy on the spy.

But what Eric soon discovers is that Hanssen is not just a sexual loose cannon—he’s also been selling secrets to the Soviet Union and then to Russia for over 20 years, and Eric’s real assignment is to flush him out so the Bureau can build an airtight case for espionage, a capital punishment case. And Hanssen is set to retire in a matter of months.

Director Billy Ray (“Shattered Glass”), with co-writers Adam Mazer and William Rotko, and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, has taken the true story of the most damaging traitor in U.S. history and turned it into a chilly, damp, claustrophobic character study of two men with secrets who have to be colleagues but can’t let down their guards for a moment. Even if you know how it ends, Ray maintains a Hitchcockian air of unrelenting suspense.

Phillippe comes of age as Eric O’Neill, who at first comes to admire Hanssen’s fortitude and dedication despite the fact that there is something off about the man. Eric’s wife Juliana, who is from East Germany, thinks he’s creepy. Caroline Dhavernas is terrific as Juliana, hurt by Eric’s secrecy—he never gives in and lets her know what is going on with Hanssen—but never histrionically so.

Laura Linney is taut and a little tragic as Eric’s contact, a woman who has come to realize in middle age that her entire career has been a waste because Hanssen has undone everything she’s accomplished. Dennis Haysbert, Kathleen Quinlan and Bruce Davison all have nice moments in small roles but significant roles.

But it’s Cooper who owns the film. As Hanssen, whose motive for spying is never made entirely clear, he’s as clamped tight as a Mason jar with a rusty lid. The character gives him so much to chew on—Hanssen goes to Mass everyday, he’s loved by his wife and grandchildren, he’s intelligent and quiet, and he videotapes he and his wife having sex and gives the tapes to friends and is more paranoid than a mouse in a cat food store—but he keeps it all bottled in.

It’s the kind of role that is too quiet to be remembered next year at Oscar time, but you’ll sure be thinking of acting honors as you watch the film.

It’s all so banal to be so important. If Thoreau had read spy novels, you’d know what prompted him to coin the phrase “lives of quiet desperation.”

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