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Breach: The true story of a turncoat’s comeuppance

by Glen Baity

Traitor.

In the acerbic political climate we can’t seem to stop wallowing in, it might be fair to say the word has lost some of its sting. Yes, it’s supposed to signify a person who actively works against the interests of the United States, who crosses that line in the sand to reveal crucial intelligence at the expense of American lives.

Within the past four years, somehow, it has also become a word for country singers, talk show hosts and film directors who don’t much care for the president. If that fact alone doesn’t demonstrate the peril of levying a serious charge without first thinking about the precedent it sets, let’s put it this way: If the people who brought you “Goodbye Earl” are traitors, how bad can the crime really be?

Before the hate mail starts a-flowin’, I’ll clarify: yes, to be a traitor is a contemptible, unforgivable thing, and anyway, I’m only saying all this by way of introduction to a story that acts as a simple reminder of what a traitor actually is.

Breach, the new film by director Billy Ray (who wrote 2005’s Flightplan and 2003’s Shattered Glass, the latter his directorial debut) is the true story of Robert Hanssen.

As a two-faced spy who spent years under the radar giving up US informants to KGB operatives, Hanssen caused monetary damages to the US intelligence community in the billions of dollars and extensive institutional damage, though exactly how extensive is a detail that remains classified. The film chronicles the two months leading up to Hanssen’s arrest, and the efforts of the young agent hopeful who helped pulled it off.

A typically phenomenal Chris Cooper plays Hanssen, newly assigned in early 2001 to rework the entire FBI intelligence apparatus. After more than 20 years spent spying on the Soviets, the gruff veteran is ill at ease in his windowless office, disrespected by his superiors and largely ignored by his colleagues.

He gets a whiff of something suspicious immediately upon meeting his new greenhorn assistant Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillipe). And he’s not mistaken: O’Neill has been assigned to watch every move his new boss makes, though the reasons aren’t completely clear. O’Neill’s superiors tell him that Hanssen has been using agency resources to solicit sex over the internet, but even that offense doesn’t seem to warrant the ample resources dedicated to the investigation.

Only later does O’Neill find out the full significance of his daily reports to the agency brass: Hanssen is believed to be the longest-running, highest-profile turncoat in FBI history.

Breach then, becomes about the novice O’Neill cutting his teeth by spying on one of the best spies in the United States, if not the world. And Hanssen is a formidable opponent: He can spot a lie before you say it; he can detect an intrusion into his personal space almost immediately after it happens; and his guard is always, always up.

The film, consequently, relies on the dynamic between Phillipe and Cooper, and both men knock this one out of the park. As O’Neill slowly peels the layers from his boss’s facade, he finds a man of stunning duality whose loyalties are superseded by nothing so much as a king-sized ego. Theirs is a cat-and-mouse game that never dulls and never lets up.

Breach benefits from a good supporting cast in Laura Linney, Kathleen Quinlan and Caroline Dhavernas. But the real star is Cooper, a prolific and tremendously gifted actor whose contributions in dozens of ensemble pieces are all too frequently overlooked by the average audience. In Breach, he portrays the loyalty and bitter disappointment at war in this complex character, whose real-life counterpart is currently living out the rest of his life in solitary confinement.

More than anything, Cooper’s reading of the character implies a real knowledge of the gravity of Hanssen’s crimes, and a resultant compulsion to commit them anyway. Interesting, too, is that it all transpired only months before the 9-11 attacks and their ensuing political discord. That era, from which we’ve yet to emerge, has given rise to a number of polemicists who equate dissent with treason. Given that, it’s interesting to revisit a pre-9-11 America, where the words we’re currently slinging about once had real heft and clear meaning.

In Breach, there’s a refreshing lack of rhetorical saber-rattling: Hanssen was and is a traitor in the most meaningful sense, someone who openly pledged fidelity to his country while clandestinely working to bring it down from the inside. That’s a far cry from how Ann Coulter uses the word. While Breach, on the surface, is an intense, entertaining thriller, it also makes an important contribution to our cultural dialogue by implication, reminding its audience how a few short years and extensive exposure to cable news can damage a nation’s sense of perspective.

Tell Glen Baity to shut up and sing when you send your e-mail to glen.baity@gmail.com.

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