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For 23 hours of every day, Robert Hanssen sits alone in solitary confinement in a maximum security penitentiary in Florida. This is the life now of the worst spy in American history and the subject of Billy Ray’s surprisingly pleasant “Breach.”
For 22 years, Hanssen sold classified information to the Russians, including the American “Continuation of Government Plan” in the event of a nuclear attack. This plan describes in specific detail the location of the president, the vice president and members of Congress, to name a few.
Chris Cooper was always the actor in the film that you wanted to remember but couldn’t, at least until 2002. His turn that year as John Laroche in “Adaptation” won him an Oscar and, unfair as it may be, the prize of having mainstream audiences remember his name. He also got the reward of headlining his own films — a reward that fans of Cooper’s would argue is long overdue. As Robert Hanssen he gives the audience a superb portrayal of both the human and the unexplainable sides of Hanssen’s psyche –- making him both sympathetic and terrifying.
Hanssen was a devout Catholic, often attending mass once a day. He’s no grocery store Catholic, as his wife described, and his remedy for almost every problem, including his own, was to pray. As a religious conservative, he deplored Planned Parenthood, homosexuals, women in pant suits and Hillary Clinton. And he was a creepy man who showed up at your house unannounced to talk to your wife about Opus Dei. But he also was brilliant in a particularly frightening sort of way. Well ahead of the curve in information technology, he knew how to hide information, find it, encrypt it, sell it and make millions.
The man given the task of day-to-day surveillance of Hanssen was Eric O’Neill, an up-and-coming FBI trainee with grand hopes of climbing the intelligence community ladder. Played aptly by Ryan Phillippe, his character — a blend of cocky and cautious — comes to life without the hollowness that often plagues Phillippe.
Laura Linney is FBI agent Kate Burroughs, whose job it is to oversee O’Neill. She is that cool, lifeless prototype of a successful agent. She eats microwave dinners and lives with her cat. She’s precisely the type of agent we want tracking monsters like Hanssen and keeping us safe. Linney’s role is limited, which is a shame because she could have added something more to a film that glazes over the complex process of the FBI tracking one its own.
To lure Hanssen into its trap, the FBI created a fake Department of Information Assurance, built a fake office full of enough surveillance equipment to “microwave a turkey,” and assigned O’Neill as his errand boy. The film only covers the two months leading up to Hanssen’s arrest. We know from newspaper accounts and books that Hanssen was targeted and tracked much longer than that. But the audience is whisked through the back story. Fans of spy films may be disappointed. John Le Carre this isn’t.
But that is not a criticism of director and co-writer Billy Ray, who provides the requisite intensity to make interesting and exciting a story to which we already know the ending. Adam Mazer’s and William Rotko’s story was the basis for the screenplay, which they co-wrote with Ray. O’Neill served as a consultant.
Ray’s last outing, “Shattered Glass,” told the story of Stephen Glass, a writer for the New Republic who admitted to making up dozens of stories printed in the magazine. Like Glass, Hanssen was a liar. While “Breach” is much grander in nature, one can understand the interest, if not the similarity, in the two subjects.
On Feb. 8, 2001, in a parking lot outside Foxstone Park in Fairfax County, Hanssen was caught in the act of espionage. When asked why he did it, he responded, “What good would speculating do? I spied. The why’s not important.”
Maybe it isn’t. The why may be buried in classified documents that no one will ever see. Or maybe it’s buried deep in the mind of man who spends 23 hours a day alone in a jail cell. Regardless, “Breach” doesn’t waste time trying to explain it. Like its subject, it isn’t worth it.
On Nov. 15, 1971, a woman named Edie Sedgwick died. Her rise to fame in the 1960s was a result of her friendship with artist and art-house filmmaker Andy Warhol. One has to wonder what about her life, all 28 years of it, was worth making “Factory Girl,” director George Hickenlooper’s latest calamity. It stars Sienna Miller as Sedgwick and Guy Pearce as Warhol.
Sedgwick’s story lacks relevance and this film doesn’t do anything to change that. Sure, she was at one time a popular face and a darling of the New York art scene. But she never developed into a serious actress. She simply made headlines, first with Warhol and then with a young rocker named Bob Dylan. It’s long been rumored that she inspired Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde” as well as “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat.” That alone might have made for an interesting film if Dylan had allowed it to be made. But he threatened legal action shortly after he discovered that he was being portrayed in this film. It apparently had something to do with the appearance of a connection between Dylan and Sedgwick’s death (no such connection exists in the film). As a result, Hayden Christensen, who was cast to play Dylan, is noted only as “the musician.” It still doesn’t correct the mistake of casting Christensen, who does nothing other than sport a harmonica, wear a scarf and ride a motorcycle that would remind us of Dylan.
Miller and Pearce are both enjoyable in spite of the bizarreness of this film, one that chooses to splatter an often-naked Sedgwick, Warhol and a bunch of other people onscreen in the hopes that someone somewhere calls it art. Bizarre doesn’t equate to art. Of course, Bob Dylan wanted nothing to do with it.