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Spy:
The Inside Story of How the FBI's Robert Hanssen Betrayed America
by David Wise
Hardcover available from Amazon)
. "Breach"

If this film were released in November there'd be plenty of buzz for Chris Cooper's chances of an Oscar nomination for his performance here. In 9 months we'll know if the Motion Picture Academy has a long enough memory to retain what they see in February.

The greatest case of treason in the history of the FBI was exposed with the capture and incarceration of agent Robert Hanssen, a traitor whose alliance with Russia's KGB has been going on for 22 years with catasrophic consequences for the U.S. During that time the 6,000 pages of documents and 26 computer diskettes passed to the enemy caused, among other things, the murders of 50 known "assets" (humans) working for us. The true extent of the damage he caused with the total access his high station in the agency gave him isn't known or remains classified.

Once his perfidy became known to the agency, an elaborate and highly secretive operation was put in place to catch him in the act of passing classified intel to Moscow. The Agency doesn't want to go to trial with the circumstantial case they've already built, resulting in a probable 5 years. They want this cookie in for life. For that, the mole needs a counter mole.

For this, career agent Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney) exploits the special talents of agent-wannabe Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe), handsome, deceptively straightforward, with the talents of a quick-mind and subtle manipulation -- resourcefulness yet to be made evident but which Burroughs astutely senses. She places him in the position of Hanssen's assistant in his new office at the Bureau, explaining only that he's a sexual pervert.

Hanssen, suspecting only that he's been transferred to an inconsequential job as a pre-retirement ploy, is maddened by the thought that his accomplishments, abilities and previous high status for the Agency is now being unappreciated. he has no real suspicion of how close he is to being unmasked.

The heart of the drama is the cat and mouse game, the chance of discovery and the blowing of the case with every thought, every gesture, as Hanssen's main concern with assistant O'Neill is whether he can trust him. Of course he cannot, but he doesn't know it. Meanwhile, he's a wily and dangerous enemy who can use the power still at his command, which he uses to virtually infiltrate O'Neill's life, including inviting himself and his bible-thumping wife Bonnie (Kathleen Quinlan) to dinner with Eric and his wife Juliana (Caroline Dhavernas), making a close social tie part of a basis for trust.

This sets in motion tricky steps forward and backward for the sustainment of suspense by director Billy Ray ("Flightplan," "Suspect Zero," "Shattered Glass") who works from a tense screenplay by Adam Mazer and William Rotko. What they leave out are the reasons behind Hanssen's treason, concentrating instead on the issue of how he's caught. While going into his backstory to get a handle on why his allegiance to his country turned would have made this a different, perhaps looser movie, a reference to it would have provided richer understanding. The absence of that detail suggests that his traitorous motivations may not be known.

In the end, O'Neill's contribution to the success of the case guarantees him the place he wanted with the Agency, but the agonies of compromising his marriage convinces him to seek another direction. End credits explain that he's now a successful Washington attorney.

While Cooper's intensity and shadings builds a finely portrayed example of the devious, ever-suspicious spy, Phillippe demonstrates an equal share of thespian honors as the apparently clean-faced protagonist whose secret agenda must be equally well hidden behind a mask of diffident earnestness. This is a performance that should earn him much increased notice as a serious and accomplished actor of considerable potential.

Quinlan is suitably suggestive as the biblically superior Mrs. Hanssen while Dhavernas limns the overly familiar role of unhappy wife without much chance of breaking the mold. But, at least this outstanding Canadian has arrived in a second major movie (after "Hollywoodland") which, one hopes, is an added springboard to what she really can do. Dhavernas has the potential to develop into a major international star, whose talents knocked me out in 2002 when I discovered them in "Edge of Madness."

One of the subtle messages of the film may well be that those who think they can "read" honesty or deception on the face of others are no more skilled to do so than the average person. Self-deception about one's skills and an inability to acknowledge one's limits, can bring a double-agent down, as it did in this true case.

For me, this is an exciting thriller of the mind-game variety played vigorously by an exceptionally capable ensemble--drama of a high order, without blood, bombs or bombast.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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