It’s so obvious in retrospect, like a blaring alarm, like someone’s hair on fire. The Robert Hanssen spying case, which broke in early 2001, was — it is so clear now — the harbinger of 9/11, a big honking symptom of the entrenched, institutional problems at the FBI that let big clues slip by, clues that might have prevented the horrors of that day. The real-life events depicted in Breach are awful enough, but step back and see the bigger picture and be even more appalled.
At least as Breach would have it. Not in so many words, not like it has an axe to grind. This is one smart thriller: it lets you draw your own conclusions, assumes you’re connected enough to current events to understand the context in which it occurs — no, actually, it requires that you’re connected in order to get the full brunt of the anxiety and dread bubbling under its surface. Without that context, you get a law-enforcement procedural — look how the FBI caught a spy in its own ranks! — one with excellent performances, to be sure, from Chris Cooper (Syriana, Jarhead) and Laura Linney (Man of the Year, The Exorcism of Emily Rose), who are always amazing, and even, wonder of wonders, Ryan Phillippe (Flags of Our Fathers, Crash); one in which the toll a career in the FBI takes on agents is carefully and delicately explored and critiqued. Yet still just a very well executed episode of Law and Order.
But then look at how cleverly written the film is. Screenwriters Adam Mazer, William Rotko (this is the first produced credit for both of them), and director Billy Ray (who made the underrated Shattered Glass, also about lies and deception and self-delusion) refuse to speculate about the motives of the man who, it is said, is the most damaging traitor in American history, who sold so many vital secrets to the Russians that the full extent of how he compromised national security cannot be revealed… for reasons of national security. (The litany of secrets we do learn that he sold is shocking enough — it’s hard to imagine worse things he could have told those who don’t have America’s best interests at heart.) Not just “refuse”: outright refuse, by putting words into Hanssen’s mouth at the end of the film that blatantly reject the notion that motives are important, that surely the fact that he committed the crimes is the only thing we need know. And yet, clues to possible motives are there, even if none of them fully explain, even by stretching the criminal imagination, what he did.
It’s like this: In the annals of disgruntled employees, Robert Hanssen, career FBI agent, is close to the top of the list. He was intel, and, as Hanssen (Cooper) explains to the agent wannabe assigned to work as his assistant, Eric O’Neill (Phillippe), the intel side of the FBI gets no respect. Hanssen is a computer expert, and he’s been railing at the Bureau to upgrade its antiquated systems for years — no one listens, because it’s only the guys with guns who are paid any heed, only the guys with guns who get the big promotions. It is the “organizational arrogance” of the FBI, Hanssen assures O’Neill, that has prevented Hanssen from advancing as he deserves to… and, the unspoken undertone is, that prevented the many warnings of 9/11 we’ve heard about — field reports from intel agents, for instance — from being given the weight of urgency they deserved.
And, oy, don’t get Hanssen started on the lack of interagency cooperation between the FBI and the CIA. (We see that lack almost sink the FBI’s investigation into Hanssen, too.)
No excuses are offered for Hanssen’s extraordinarily damaging behavior, and Cooper’s hard performance brooks little sympathy. The point of Breach not only isn’t to excuse what he did, or even to explain it: it’s to highlight the disarray the state of U.S. national security is in on the whole, even just in the parts that are relatively transparent to the civilian, as illustrated by this one example. Hanssen was able to do what he did because he was way ahead of the curve of the rest of the Bureau. And though it’s never anything more than merely implicit — rarely has the subtext of a film been so vital to appreciating its power — the scariest thing about Breach is the implication that the perpetrators of 9/11 were able to do what they did because they were way ahead of the curve, too.
And that’s a deeply unsettling thought.