It's simply a case of stepping up


It’s a joy to see an actor who once seemed nothing more than a bimbo, a pretty face, mature into a real actor of far greater range.

These transformations are electrifying: Think of Brad Pitt as a mental patient in “12 Monkeys,” or Johnny Depp circa his “Arizona Dream”/”Ed Wood”/”What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” period in the early 1990s.

No less satisfying is seeing a long-term character-actor morph into a leading man. Think Jean Reno in “Leon,” Paul Giamatti in “Sideways” or Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Capote” and “Charlie Wilson’s War.” Give them a bite at the lead, and they prove more than capable of carrying a film.

You can enjoy both of these phenomena in “Breach,” a taut spy story exploring the life of Robert Hanssen, an F.B.I. agent who was a long-term mole for the KGB before being caught in 2001.

Director Billy Ray
Run Time 110 minutes
Language English

There’s boy-toy Ryan Phillippe: A non-presence in films such as “54” and “Cruel Intentions,” he’s now on a roll (“Gosford Park” and “Flags of our Fathers”) and seems so sure of himself. He puts on a display of wary, two-faced duplicity that rivals anything Damon or DiCaprio did in the much-hyped “The Departed.”

Playing across from Phillippe is Chris Cooper, the perpetual Southern-flavored hard-ass since his unforgettable role as the disciplinarian dad in “American Beauty.” (With his Oscar-winning turn as an exotic plant collector in “Adaptation” being a notable exception.)

“Breach” sees Cooper take his usual image as the face of authority and turn it inside out. As Hanssen, Cooper is as tough and gruff and hard-edged as ever, but behind this exterior lies a character so full of contradictions that it would seem absurd except for the fact that it’s true.

Hanssen, put in charge of safeguarding the agency’s security, instead sold secrets to the Russians. Yet he considered himself a patriot. A devout Catholic who went to mass daily, he frequented porn sites on the Net and made amateur videos with his equally religious wife, Bonnie (Kathleen Quinlan). A man who could trust no one due to his double-life, he nonetheless betrayed a certain arrogance in his ability to outwit all the suckers who were his superiors at the agency.

They, however, were smart enough to put a young man on his tail. Phillippe plays Eric O’Neill, an earnest lower-ranking investigator eager for promotion. He is assigned to work as Hanssen’s assistant, to keep an eye on him and report to his superior, agent Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney). Hanssen is first suspicious and hostile toward the eager-to-please O’Neill, but once O’Neill figures out an inroad — their shared Catholicism — he plays it for all it’s worth. What follows is a suspenseful game of deception not far removed from the excellent “Donnie Brasco,” which had Johnny Depp and Al Pacino in a similarly Oedipal relationship.

The dynamic between the two men drives the story; Cooper, as Hanssen, wears a perpetual scowl, an air of distaste that regards you like some stink that wafted into his personal space, and a wary, reptilian gaze. Phillippe, as O’Neill, is deferent, ingratiating, and somewhat bumbling. He’s inept compared to Hanssen, but he turns this to his advantage, to get the older guy’s guard down.

For a film where the end is never in doubt, director Billy Ray manages to create some real tension, albeit by taking poetic license with the actual story. These scenes, invented though they may be, serve to underline that this is no mere bureaucratic investigation, but a life-or-death matter.

“Breach” is Ray’s followup to “Shattered Glass,” which looked at the scandal surrounding New Republic magazine reporter Stephen Glass, a prestige journalist who was revealed to have made-up many of his stories. Like Hanssen, Glass also lived a life pretending to be something he was not, and felt smart enough to con everyone else.

Both men understood the system well enough to play it, and this, it seems, is Ray’s cynical view of contemporary America, a land where a draft-evader can play the war-hero commander in chief, and priests turn out to be perverts. Perception may be everything, as they say, but both of Ray’s films remind us that reality, despite what Karl Rove insisted, still counts for something.