In his remarkable 2003 debut feature, Shattered Glass, the director Billy Ray never quite came out and explained why Stephen Glass, the ambitious young New Republic reporter who made up articles out of whole cloth, did what he did. Yet watching Hayden Christensen’s super-sharp performance, you saw how Glass built each ghost of a lie around a childlike need for approval, and the result was a generational X-ray into a new kind of office sociopath — a suck-up so pathological that he made his needs more important than reality. Now Ray has directed his second film, the abysmally titled Breach, and it’s a bona fide companion piece, another true-life tale of duplicity gone secretly insane.
Chris Cooper, with his still-water intelligence and his tender grimace, plays Robert Hanssen, the veteran FBI agent who was arrested on Feb. 18, 2001, after having spent his career selling secrets to the Russians — notably the identities of three KGB operatives-turned-moles, two of whom were killed. Ryan Phillippe is the agent-in-training who is assigned, as an internal spy, to be Hanssen’s assistant. Just as Shattered Glass swirled around the intrigue of office politics, Breach takes the form of one of those boss-from-hell scenarios (Swimming With Sharks, The Devil Wears Prada). Cooper plays Hanssen as a stiff-necked, morose puritan who can scan a personality like a data sheet. A walking enigma, he hectors his new aide even as he treats him like family; he attends Mass each morning, hating what he calls the godless culture of the former Soviet Union, but he’s also a closet voyeur who makes secret sex tapes of himself and his wife. Never does he seem more patriotic than when he’s slamming the careerist bureaucracy of the FBI.
So why did he do it? Ray, once again, never comes out and says, but in Breach the refusal to explain lacks the resonance it had in Shattered Glass. In truth, the movie leaves us scratching our heads. And yet, for most of it, I was held — by Chris Cooper’s dour portrayal of walled-off demons, by the director’s fascination with a deception that, on the surface of it, doesn’t add up. The next time, he should be a little less shy about doing the math.