Five years after he was arrested, Robert Hanssen remains what Winston Churchill once called "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." Churchill was referring to the Soviet Union, which couldn't be more appropriate, since that's who Hanssen, an employee of the FBI, sold secrets to for 15 years - the Soviet Union and then, after the Evil Empire's demise, the Republic of Russia. But how'd he get away with it? That's the riddle. And why'd he do it? That's the mystery. Finally, just who is this guy? That's a very good question. Now serving a life sentence, Hanssen is as enigmatic as ever, having refused to explain his actions. Did he need the money? Sort of. Was he resentful that he wasn't climbing higher within the FBI? Definitely. Did he do it for the kicks? Possibly. The thing is, we may never know.
Breach is a movie about our need to know and our inability to know. Directed by Billy Ray, who took on a strangely similar subject in Shattered Glass, his movie about a writer for The New Republic who started making up articles out of whole cloth, it's a taut little thriller that never resorts to car chases to get our blood pumping. Instead, we follow the paper and electronic trails as the FBI, after years of neglect, closes in on the most prolific mole in the history of the United States. Over 6,000 pages of documents and 26 computer diskettes got handed over while Hanssen, a counterintelligence analyst who knew more about computers than anyone around there, tried to help locate the breach in security. As in The Departed, the perp investigates himself, which turns out to be a wonderful way to hide.
Chris Cooper, who always looks like he's sucking on a sourball, plays Hanssen, a man so prickly and morbid that he was known around the office as Dr. Death. And it's amazing to watch Cooper fill in the blanks, flesh out the character. For Hanssen was both a bit of a religious nut (a member of Opus Dei, the cult-like Catholic order) and a bit of a libertine (videotapes of him and his wife having sex, strippers) - a man of contradictions. But Cooper reminds us that these are two sides of the same coin. The movie's structured as a game of cat-and-mouse between Hanssen and Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe), an eager-beaver agent-in-training who gets assigned to assist Hanssen and secretly keep an eye on him. And it's easy to underestimate Phillippe, with his pretty-boy pout. But he's got some moves, can hold his own.
And so can O'Neill, who's based on an actual person. The real-life Hanssen and O'Neill may not have matched wits at quite the level these two do; early on, the movie mythologizes Hanssen, turns him into a Hannibal Lecter-like savant, with the ability to both read minds and smell trouble from a mile away. But Ray does a nice job of keeping things tamped down, draping his shots in a gray-green light. And if the movie evokes No Way Out, where Kevin Costner played a mole who'd burrowed so deep that not even the audience caught on to him, it also evokes All the President's Men, where a pair of enterprising reporters systematically brought down a president. There are even some Deep Throat-like rendezvous when O'Neill checks in with his real boss, an ultra-smart career gal given a hint of lonely resentment by Laura Linney.
In Hanssen's case, it was the downfall of the Soviet Union that led to his own downfall - all those former Soviet agents in desperate need of cash. And it would be tempting to explain Hanssen in terms of cash; his salary was barely enough to put his six kids through private Catholic schools. But Breach does us the honor of not really explaining him at all. He shuffled papers by day, sold them to the enemy at night.