Actor/ Director Robert DeNiro's "The Good Shepherd" presents a complex portrait of the inner workings of the CIA, using detailed strokes on a broad canvass. In "Breach," Director/co-writer Billy Ray handles it differently. He keeps things tight and simple when revealing the seemingly banal machinations of the FBI.
With a brilliant performance as counterintelligence spy-turned-traitor Robert Hanssen, Ray does it better. In showing how the FBI baited and caught the most notorious espionage snitch in United States history, the filmmaker builds unbearable suspense, yet basically reduces the drama to a cat-and-mouse game between two co-workers, Hanssen and his new agent-in-training Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe). In fact, the true story could be done as a stage play with the two leads working their do-you-trust-me duplicities back and forth between two adjoining offices.
FBI boss Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney) at first makes sure O'Neill is kept in the dark about Hassen, merely saying that he's sexual deviant. The rookie finds the senior spy uptight but workmanlike, even growing to respect him. They also bond over their strong belief in Catholicism and intense insights into computer science. Sundays are shared at church and their homes, their wives mingling though not very successfully: Bonnie Hanssen (Kathleen Quinlan) is a religious zealot, while former East German Juliana O'Neill (Caroline Dhavernas) is not a Bible toter or quoter. And Hanssen is adored by his grandchildren.
Then, Burroughs lowers the boom. She tells O'Neill that Hanssen has given more than 6,000 pages of classified information to the Soviet Union and lately the Russians for a cool $1.4 million, and he's been doing it since 1985. It's presently 2001, with the FBI veteran on the verge of retirement. O'Neill has two months to set him up for a sting while he is making a drop. The trick is trust. But Hanssen is as smart as he is paranoid.
The question is... why is Hanssen risking his life, his family and his country?
While it is never completely clear, the most obvious motivation is ego. At one point, O'Neill tells Hanseen that he has no reason to worry about being scrutinized by the big shots, because he "doesn't matter." Hanssen shoots back, "I do matter!" If he can't make a name doing something positive for his country, then he takes the negative route.
Well, he did make a name for himself. He made it all the way to a life sentence in a maximum-security prison, where he's in solitary confinement for 23 hours every day.
He also made a role of a lifetime for actor Chris Cooper. See him in "Breach." Hopefully, he and his character will be remembered for Oscar 2007.