Universal Pictures

Directed by Billy Ray

With Chris Cooper, Ryan Phillippe, Laura Linney, and Dennis Haysbert


It’s so obvious in retrospect, like a blaring alarm. The Robert Hanssen spying case, which broke in early 2001, was the harbinger of 9/11, a symptom of the entrenched problems at the FBI that let big clues slip by, clues that might have prevented the horrors of that day. The real-life events depicted in Breach are awful enough, but step back and see the bigger picture and be even more appalled.

At least as director Billy Ray would have it. Not in so many words, not like his film has an axe to grind. This is one smart thriller: It lets you draw your own conclusions, actually, requires that you’re connected to current events in order to get the full brunt of the anxiety and dread bubbling under its surface. Without that context, you get a law-enforcement procedural — look how the FBI caught a spy in its own ranks! — one with excellent performances, to be sure, from Chris Cooper and Laura Linney and even, wonder of wonders, Ryan Phillippe. Yet still just a very well executed episode of Law and Order.

But then look at how cleverly written the film is. Screenwriters Adam Mazer, William Rotko, and director Billy Ray (who made the underrated Shattered Glass, also about lies and deception and self-delusion) refuse to speculate about the motives of the man who, it is said, is the most damaging traitor in American history, who sold so many vital secrets to the Russians that the full extent of how he compromised national security cannot be revealed … for reasons of national security. And yet subtle clues to Hanssen’s possible motives are there, even if none of them fully explain why he did what he did, even by stretching the criminal imagination.

It’s like this: In the annals of disgruntled employees, Robert Hanssen, career FBI agent, is close to the top of the list. He was intel, and, as Hanssen (Cooper) explains to the agent wannabe assigned to work as his assistant, Eric O’Neill (Phillippe), the intel side of the FBI gets no respect. Hanssen is a computer expert, and he’s been railing at the Bureau to upgrade its antiquated systems for years — no one listens, because it’s only the guys with guns who are paid any heed, only the guys with guns who get the big promotions. It is the “organizational arrogance” of the FBI, Hanssen assures O’Neill, that has prevented Hanssen from advancing as he deserves to … and, by unspoken undertone, that thwarted the many warnings of 9/11 we’ve heard about — field reports from intel agents, for instance — from being given the weight of urgency they deserved.

And don’t get Hanssen started on the lack of interagency cooperation between the FBI and the CIA. (We see that lack almost sink the FBI’s investigation into Hanssen, too.)

No excuses are offered for Hanssen’s extraordinarily destructive behavior, and Cooper’s hard performance brooks little sympathy. If there’s a point to Breach, it’s not to excuse what he did, or even to explain it: It’s to highlight the utter state of disarray U.S. national security is in on the whole, even just in the parts that are relatively transparent to us blindered civilians, as illustrated by this example. Hanssen was able to do what he did because he was way ahead of the curve of the rest of the Bureau. And though it’s never anything more than merely implied — rarely has the subtext of a film been so vital to appreciating its power — the scariest thing about Breach is the implication that the perpetrators of 9/11 were able to do what they did because they were way ahead of the curve, too.

And that’s a deeply unsettling thought.