Having established himself as a screenwriter well before making his directorial debut with Shattered Glass, a compelling account of Stephen Glass' fabulist antics at New Republic, Billy Ray has an unusual devotion to the page. He makes what could be called "screenwriters' movies," where the no-frills storytelling approach makes up in true-to-life detail and characterization what it lacks in visual panache. His new thriller Breach, a gripping tale about the most devastating security breach in U.S. history, goes a its business with a refreshing lack of pretense, all the better to capture the gray bureaucracy that makes FBI headquarters seem like every other drab office building. In the process, Breach nearly suggests that Robert Hanssen—an enigmatic agent who sold secrets to the Russians for a good chunk of his 25-year tenure with the bureau—committed treason as a relief from the dull, windowless banality that nags at the average cubicle-dweller.
Mere months before his capture, the FBI dispatched agent-in-training Eric O'Neill (played by Ryan Phillippe) to clerk for Hanssen (Chris Cooper) and gather information about how he spent his days. In the film, O'Neill is told only about Hanssen's alleged sexual deviance, not about his more relevant extracurricular activities, which the bureau had been following for a while. Though Hanssen greets his young charge with paranoid suspicion, O'Neill takes a liking to his mark, and joins Hanssen and his wife on outings to a conservative Roman Catholic church with ties to Opus Dei. When his superior (Laura Linney) finally lets him in on the truth, O'Neill has to overcome his ambivalence and help capture his exceptionally smart, wily target.
As Hanssen, Cooper gives shape to a rich, contradictory character, one who seems genuinely devoted to God and country, even after it's revealed that he's compromised himself on both fronts. The main problem with Breach is that the story is told through O'Neill, who's far less compelling, in part because Phillippe doesn't have the chops to draw out his own set of contradictions. By committing himself to O'Neill's perspective, Ray misses the opportunity to uncover more information about Hanssen's relationship with his wife and church, his aberrant sexuality, and his mysterious connection to the Russians. But to a certain extent, perhaps it's best that Ray leaves so much to suggestion: Hanssen was enigmatic even to those closest to him, and Breach does well not to explain away his motives. Much like the young villain's eyes in Shattered Glass, Ray's impression of the real Hanssen remains frighteningly opaque.