The emotional isolation of intelligence work exacts an awful price on marriage.


An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

        Call this one the February Surprise. In this dreariest month for movie releases, who would have expected “Breach?” Based on the true story of FBI spy Robert Hanssen, this absorbing thriller unfolds against the background of the entrenched bureaucracy that is the FBI. Not until 9/11 did we learn that the Bureau is a repository for utterly outmoded computer systems. We did know though, that J. Edgar Hoover had fashioned the Bureau to fit his warped sense of propriety. Dark suits and white shirts were the uniform; rigid lines of command were the norm.

        When flexibility and spontaneity are all but outlawed in a bureaucracy that needs them desperately, small power groups form as this one did in late 2000. Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney) lives alone “I don’t even have a cat” – a perfect profile of the agent who is not subject to blackmail and has no spouse asking her to spill the beans to him. Kate summons Eric (Ryan Phillipe) an ambitious trainee who aspires to the title of FBI Agent. Without telling him that she suspects Robert Hanssen of being a double agent for the Russians, she assigns Eric to work alongside Hanssen in a sting job. “Watch every move he makes, Eric.”

        Hanssen turns out to be both a lover of computer porn and a church going Catholic of odd dimensions. On the surface, he is a typical FBI bureaucrat; but he pilfers top secret papers from the bureau, wraps them tightly in garbage bags and tapes them to the underside of a bridge near his home. He did this for more than two decades, and the extent of what he gave the Russians over that time is still classified.

        Director Billy Ray maintains an excruciating level of tension by making every gesture and word count. Laura Linney is fine as the no-nonsense case officer who has figured out the case but has to prove it. Ryan Phillipe’s Eric grows beyond competitive rookie to a full grasp of the seriousness of the case. His relationship with his wife Juliana (Caroline Dhavernas) reminds us that the emotional isolation of intelligence work exacts an awful price on marriage. In this movie, the resolution of this damage is anything but a cliché.

        These actors give fine support to Chris Cooper’s restrained yet dazzling performance as the spy who never came in from the cold. The wallop in this thriller comes largely from our desire to figure Hanssen out. Neither director nor writer chooses to enlighten us. Why did Hanssen sell these American secrets slowly over twenty years for more than a million dollars? How does his devout church life fit with his mission? He caused the death of at least three agents and compromised many more. Chris Cooper gives a superb rendering of a man of unexplained contradictions. As a man with a sense of inferiority, he found the one thing that would force his peers to take him seriously: he loved being a mole.

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