Dubby’s dvdiscussion: Traitor


In 2004 director Billy Ray did the sublimely brilliant Shattered Glass about a true life journalist who makes up stories and lies in print. Ray’s touch was deft, light and he built the character of the errant journalist with what seemed like consummate ease. Ray used camera tricks and then unusual flashbacks to keep audiences in suspense.

This year Ray is infinitely more serious while he builds the character of Robert Hanssen the FBI veteran who was considered the most destructive mole in US history when he was discovered in 2001.

If Ray was light in Shattered Glass, he is concentrated and takes his audiences into the minds of the traitor Robert Hanssen and into the moral quandary that Eric O’Neill the agent assigned to take him down, is faced with.

Hanssen is played by Chris Cooper in a frightening, virtuoso performance and Ray spends the movie building him. What makes the man traitor — this is the question that is asked as we see Hanssen/ Cooper self-assured and totally immersed in himself.

His nemesis O’Neill, played by Ryan Phillippe, shows all the conflict the real O’Neill must have felt bringing down his boss.

There is suspense aplenty but it is secondary to the many human conflicts in the movie. At the beginning O’Neill is told that Hanssen is a sexual deviant, that he is responsible for the death of American agents, but as Brian Marder notes, “After some more inside info from his boss and manifestations from Hanssen himself, O’Neill is onto the case, even if it means putting his life at risk.”

Lending class to the movie is the ever professional Laura Linney

acting in a superbly controlled performance as Phillippe’s boss.

In a review Sam Graham says, “Is a mystery really mysterious when the end isn’t a secret? Is espionage still thrilling when you know beforehand that the cloak has been pulled back and the dagger revealed? If it’s a film as good as Breach, the answer is a resounding yes. Here is a true story that’s genuinely stranger than fiction: FBI agent Robert Hanssen spent over 20 years selling government secrets to the Russians, making him the most egregious traitor in US history. He was an Opus Dei Catholic and a devout churchgoer who was also a sexual deviant, a straitlaced company man so trusted by his employers that they once appointed him to lead an investigation designed to reveal who the spy was — when in fact it was Hanssen himself. And in the end, he was brought down in part by 26-year-old Eric O’Neill, an agent-in-training who worked with him for just two months. Cooper, a 2003 supporting actor Oscar winner for Adaptation, is brilliant in the lead role, playing Hanssen as a dour, cold, ultraconservative cipher (women in pantsuits are just one of his peeves) whose conversations more closely resemble interrogations. Ryan Phillippe is also excellent as O’Neill, who’s initially kept in the dark by his superior (Linney) who assigned him to help expose Hanssen’s treachery; thinking he’s been brought in only to gather evidence about his boss’ sexual transgressions, O’Neill finds himself caught in a profound moral conundrum, grudgingly admiring Hanssen even as his own marriage is severely tested by the older man’s creepy and hypocritical intrusion into their lives, not to mention the FBI’s strict rules against discussing the case.”

At a time when biopics are growing ever more popular, it is great to watch the greatness of a movie like Breach and then compare it with the other biopic starring Richard Gere — Hoax. The latter just doesn’t measure up.