'Breach' Spins a Harrowing, Human Spy Tale

Chris Cooper, as FBI spy Robert Hanssen, in a scene from 'Breach.'

hide captionChris Cooper, as FBI spy Robert Hanssen, leads a strong cast.

Universal Pictures

The story of FBI spy Robert Hanssen makes for a film that offers a tale of real-life espionage that doubles as a compelling psychological drama. A cast led by Chris Cooper offers a compelling look at the complexities of human relationships.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

A new movie features the story of an American citizen who failed the test of keeping his country's secrets. The movie has a one-word title, "Breach."

Los Angeles Times and MORNING EDITION film critic Kenneth Turan has this review.

KENNETH TURAN: "Breach" is a crackling tale of real-life espionage that doubles as a compelling psychological drama. At its core are the intricacies of human relationships. It stars - Ryan Philippe, Laura Linney and the formidable Chris Cooper - have the talent to turn a headline-making story into subtle and complex drama.

The film's title comes from a statement by former Attorney General John Ashcroft, who described the 2001 arrest of veteran FBI agent Robert Hanson for spying for the Soviet Union as, quote, "a very serious breach in the security of the United States."

News footage of the Ashcroft statement is the first thing you see on screen in "Breach." It took enormous confidence for director Billy Ray to begin this way, to jettison the potential hook of is he guilty or not that a lesser film would have clung too for dear life.

But because "Breach" has the kind of involving situations and smart dialogue that make gifted actors grateful, it doesn't need extra help.

(Soundbite of movie, "Breach")

Mr. RYAN PHILIPPE (Actor): (As Eric O'Neill) What are you doing?

Mr. CHRIS COOPER (Actor): (As Robert Hanssen) You want to be an agent or don't you?

(Soundbite of gunshot)

Mr. COOPER: (As Hanssen) Left hand, right hand, five guards with gun and holster. You got three seconds to fire five shots.

(Soundbite of gunshot)

Mr. PHILIPPE: (As Hanssen) What are you doing?

Mr. COOPER: (As O'Neill) Who was calling you in the car?

Mr. PHILIPPE: (As Hanssen) What?

(Soundbite of gunshot)

ROBINS: After Ashcroft, "Breach" flashes back two months. A young FBI trainee played by Philippe is given a new assignment by a special agent played by Laura Linney. He will be working for Robert Hanssen, but his real job is to both spy on the man and gain his confidence.

Ryan Philippe is an actor whose charisma is cold and stoical. So he's well cast as someone who will have to play a double game with a world-class double agent. And no actress is better than Laura Linney at personalizing smart, powerful women.

(Soundbite of movie, "Breach")

Ms. LAURA LINNEY (Actress): (As Kate Burroughs) You've come to admire him, I see?

Mr. PHILIPPE: (As O'Neill) Yes.

Ms. LINNEY: (As Burroughs) Well, that was inevitable. Four our purposes it was sort of necessary. He's a traitor, Eric. Started spying for the Russians, we think, in 1985.

ROBINS: It is Chris Cooper, however, as the complicated and contradictory Hanssen, who dominates "Breach" as the man he portrays dominated his own world, setting the rules of the game he played and demolishing them with equal aplomb. Cooper's Hanssen is such a formidable presence, he terrifies everyone he meets. He is ferociously smart, ruthless and abrasive, with a reflexively suspicious mind.

Cooper's success with Hanssen is that he plays all of his character's contradictions as if they don't exist, casually creating layers of complexity like they were the most natural things in the world. The actor's past work, including his Oscar for "Adaptation," demonstrates his great gift for bringing a fierce reality to characters. And his bear of a performance here leaps off the screen and throttles you. And that's just one of the pieces that makes "Breach" the most involving cinematic puzzle of the year.

INSKEEP: Kenneth Turan reviews movies for MORNING EDITION and the Los Angeles Times. And if you missed yesterday's interview with Chris Cooper, star of "Breach," well, you didn't really miss it after all. It's at NPR.org.

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