Thursday, February 15, 2007

Spies like us

Breach illuminates a paradox with welcome simplicity. Faced with a real-life character as compelling, and as unknowable, as notorious FBI traitor Robert Hanssen, many directors would shoot the works--split screens, color schemes, abstract editing, etc. But co-writer and director Billy Ray, whose last film was the measured journalism expose Shattered Glass (2003), brings the story of Hanssen's capture, in early 2001, to the screen with similar understatement. The facts are so incredible that the film, which Universal opens tomorrow, requires no underlining or italicizing.

Breach begins with the placement of Eric O'Neill, an FBI agent-in-waiting, in Hanssen's office. His contact, Kate Burroughs, explains that Hanssen, who has been given a new posting after years as a top Soviet analyst, is suspected of sexual deviancy. But nothing about the upright, rigid Hanssen, a church-every-day Catholic whose taste in music runs toward the Andrews Sisters, squares with his assignment--which is, in fact, a cover for a more shocking takedown, as O'Neill learns. For years, Hanssen had been selling secrets to the Soviets, double-dealing that compromised national security and cost three agents their lives. (The "why" is never clear, but the film suggests an attempt to destroy one's house in order to save it, with Hanssen breaching protocol in an arrogant attempt to point out weaknesses in what we now call "homeland security.") With Hanssen poised to disappear into his rabbit hole of overseas contacts, O'Neill has to win his wary superior's trust, the better to catch him in the act of espionage.

Hanssen's story was previously filmed as the Norman Mailer-written TV film Master Spy (2002), starring William Hurt. I haven't seen it, but reviews were iffy and I doubt Hurt, despite his own gift for opacity, was quite as guarded, or as interesting, as Chris Cooper is in this film. (I really can't picture Mary Louise-Parker as his standard-bearing wife in the TV movie. Kathleen Quinlan is more believably, if more conventionally, cast in the film.) Gruff and saturnine, and quick to judge, Cooper's Hanssen's is prickly and difficult, but his seeming rectitude and insistence on proper manners makes him FBI-trustworthy. [Accent on the "seeming"--the deviancy charges were true, as Hanssen made secret sex tapes of him and his wife and clearly had other extracurricular interests besides a fetish for Catherine Zeta-Jones in, believe it or not, the film Entrapment.] Ray made good use of the callow Hayden Christensen in Shattered Glass, and the ur-Christensen, Ryan Phillippe, gives a competent, straight-ahead performance as O'Neill, whose marriage feels the burden of his top-secret assignment in familiar but unobtrusive scenes. I reckon that Laura Linney, as Burroughs, is, along with Gary Cole and 24 alum Dennis Haysbert, playing some sort of composite character, but as always she wears her assignment well and pulls some dimension from Burroughs, who squandered her career under Hanssen and is determined to extract a little payback.

Fluidly shot by Tak Fujimoto at D.C. locales that recalls the tautness he brought to the FBI-based The Silence of the Lambs, Breach has several quietly tense setpieces, particularly a lengthy sequence where O'Neill tries to keep Hanssen occupied while the latter's car is being stripped down and searched, which echoes a scene in the fact-based French Connection. The Good Shepherd made the mistake of tackling an elusive and evasive agent head-on, and at undue length; at least in this instance, viewing the subject from a distance, as quarry in a cat-and-mouse game that both sides play, works much better (and the film clips along quickly at a lean 110 minutes).

The flip side of a worm turning, this time in a more positive direction, is explored in the German film The Lives of Others (Sony Pictures Classics), which is just sentimental enough to win this year's Best Foreign Film Oscar. I don't mean that as a dig; the first-time writer and director, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, scores on both counts, and his script has a classical, almost Hitchcockian structure, as an East German Stasi captain, assigned to snoop on a playwright and his actress girlfriend, finds his allegiance changing from the state to its people.

The drab, institutional details of day-to-day life in the green and gray GDR are keenly observed, to the very point of a perverse nostalgia for the bad old days (how we miss our Soviet-styled villains) and Ulrich Muhe, an East German actor and activist who played his part in bringing down the Berlin Wall, is the real deal as the charmless functionary. Muhe I believed...but I didn't really buy his character, whose spots would not change that easily in a communist bloc country. It didn't keep me from admiring much of the film, it's just that, having seen a compelling, witness testimony-derived Stasi documentary, The Decomposition of the Soul, it's apparent that the GDR did not believe in tears. Or does the weight of history make it easier for me to swallow an agent turning toward darkness rather than the light?

No comments: