The Theory of Chaos

Tuesday, February 27, 2007


Full review behind the jump


: Billy Ray
: story by Adam Mazer & William Rotko, screenplay by Adam Mazer & William Rotko and Billy Ray
: Robert F. Newmyer, Scott Strauss, Scott Kroopf
: Chris Cooper, Ryan Phillippe, Laura Linney, Caroline Dhavernas, Gary Cole, Dennis Haysbert, Kathleen Quinlan, Bruce Davison

In 2003 Billy Ray wrote and directed
Shattered Glass, which took what might have seemed like an unfilmable story about an unhinged young overachiever fabricating stories for The New Republic, and with a keen attention to details of both place and psychological impulse, turned it into riveting drama. It was almost a thriller – a thriller where no one’s life was ever at stake, but instead a thriller that was ultimately about taking notes.

It’s worth mentioning because now he’s co-written and directed
Breach, another ripped-from-the-headlines drama that is unambiguously a thriller, but is also, quite often, about taking notes. Only this time, many lives are at stake, including that of the note-taker himself, Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillipe) of the FBI. We see in a couple of moments where the scrupulousness of his observations truly saves his whole mission – because in a job where he must submerge himself in caverns of lies, he knows just which lie to tell.

Fresh-faced, ambitious, not even a full agent yet but possessed of a uniquely-suitable biography, in 2000 and 2001 he was volunteered against his knowledge to be the point man for the final phase of a years-long investigation into the worst breach of U.S. intelligence in history, a high-level turncoat named Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper). His dispatches to Moscow got people killed, and yet within the walls of his FBI office he does little but rail at how vulnerable his place of work is. The film provides a role rich with tortured conflicts for Academy Award-winner Cooper, who must be abrasive, hypocritical, rude, perverted, even treasonous, and still win our understanding with regards to what makes him tick.

When O’Neill first takes the assignment, he is told merely that Hanssen has been visiting pornographic websites with company resources and needs to be monitored before he becomes an embarrassment. What he does not know is that because he is young, impressionable, knowledgeable about computers and possessed of a religious background, he is almost tailor-made to attract Hanssen’s trust.

Hanssen is a demanding boss, and frighteningly observant. He knows when someone has been in his office, he remembers exactly how he left his briefcase. Early on, he asks O’Neill to tell him five things about himself and to make only four of them true. We remember later on, when O’Neill must lie about everything, what a perceptive lie detector Hanssen is, and it does us much to boil the tension of the narrative as it does to show us Hanssen’s breakdown.

If this movie were a simple case of sniffing out the rat and building a watertight court case against him, it would not be so worthy of endorsement. What it does accomplish is speak to a deeper truth, that the reason Hanssen is caught now is partially because his desire to be caught has finally overwhelmed his survival instincts. Cooper’s eyes flash with agony, vainly clinging to the belief that one more trip to Mass might cleanse him of desires he can’t stop indulging in, frantically churning with justifications for the treachery his black hole of ego has sucked him into. At one point, late in the movie, he is talking about why a man would choose to betray his country. On the surface he’s talking about someone else, but we know he’s talking about himself, and deeper, we sense that he knows he’s talking about himself too, and that the simple fact of his actions, long hidden in a fog of his own rationalization, is finally emerging.

This is a man of great intelligence and ambition, full of strong opinions about everything from writing implements to women who wear pants. It seems what he is really asking is that the FBI pull itself out of its bureaucratic morass and adopt his recommendations, so that it will finally be equipped to stop, well, someone as smart as he is. At one point he was even in charge of investigating his own leak. Not every actor could convey this sort of doublethink – Cooper embraces it without ever breaking character.

Phillipe, who has become a more generous actor since leaving the teen heartthrob world behind, shows a keen awareness for the finally-calibrated language in Ray, Adam Mazer & William Rotko’s screenplay. Every sentence directed at Hanssen is a deliberate formula combining the lie of the moment, the lie underneath it all, and a stealth assault on his wall of mistrust. And he must deliver each earnestly enough to fly under his quarry’s radar. Phillipe seems to grasp that, while he is the putative hero of the movie, this is Cooper’s show, and the way he allows space for the remarkable character of Hanssen to develop for us is a study in actor’s trust.

There are details of espionage, but what’s shocking is how low-tech and old-fashioned they boil down to. This is not about sci-fi gadgets, this is about distracting Hanssen so his car can be disassembled and searched for a few hours, or stealing his PDA and getting it back to him before he notices. What Billy Ray is able to do as a filmmaker is to not give up after recognizing these actions as familiar. He just reinvests in his characters – Laura Linney is typically superb as the dedicated and frustrated agent in charge – and brings freshness to the familiar simply by being true to the scene and the people in it. Breach is in this way an exercise in trust. Trusting wrong can be a man’s downfall, but Ray was just right to trust this story, and the spectacle of Hanssen coming to pieces, to capture our attention.


  • What movie is Robert watching, on his laptop, when Eric goes into his office?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:40 PM  

  • As I recall, it's Entrapment, playing into his seeming fetish for Catherine Zeta-Jones.

    By Blogger Nick, at 7:35 PM  

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