Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

If you think the office politics in your workplace are bad, spare a thought for Eric O’Neill. In November 2000 he was assigned to be an assistant to notorious Washington hard-ass Robert Hanssen as he set about modernising the FBI’s computer technology.

A tough enough gig under normal circumstances – Hanssen was an acerbic disciplinarian, famous for intimidating his subordinates. He was also one of the most successful double agents in the history of espionage, who had been selling secrets to the Russians since the early 80s. And O’Neill’s real job was to bring him down.

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It’s a great story, but by no means an actor or director-proof one, so congratulations are in order to Shattered Glass helmer Billy Ray for playing it straight and subtle, resisting the temptation to jazz up the action quota and indulge in Hollywood speechifying about fighting for freedom or selling your soul to the Evil Empire.

And he’s well-served by his two leads. Ryan Phillippe’s air of preppy priggishness and self-containment is ideally suited to the character of O’Neill, a deadly serious but minor league surveillance operative who spends his spare time drafting protocols about computer security and touting them unsuccessfully around the bureau.

This brings him to the attention of Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney) and her boss Dean Plesac (Dennis Haysbert), the agents tasked with bringing Hanssen down. They have assembled a truckload of circumstantial evidence but need something more. So an entire job is created for Hanssen, a bugged-to-the-eyeballs office is purpose-built - and O’Neill is told he’ll be promoted to full agent if he can provide the smoking gun.

It’s here that Chris Cooper enters the picture, and takes it by the scruff of the neck. From his first appearance (hitting the office like the proverbial dose of salts, rewiring his computer from scratch while alternately insulting and testing O’Neill) he’s the Demanding Boss From Hell incarnate; hard but fair and sharper than a very sharp thing.

After all his years of solid supporting roles and impressive work for indie-ish directors such as John Sayles, it’s good to see Cooper take centre stage in a major league production. But this is more than just a pitch for the Oscars. He creates a believably driven and conflicted individual - whom the audience knows from the start is guilty but who projects such an air of old-school decency and genuine desire to see the bureau’s lax computer security and culture of inertia revamped that you end up rooting for him.

As O’Neill gets to know, then admire and finally like him, we share his conflict, simultaneously trying to uncover a master of concealment and beginning to believe (and even hope) that his target may be innocent.

O’Neill is on the point of quitting when evidence emerges that Hanssen may be ready to make a drop for his contacts. If O’Neill can engineer it that he’s caught red-handed his job will be over. But it will involve taking a major risk...

The espionage genre is one that never ceases to be popular with audiences and filmmakers alike, and it seems to be undergoing a Renaissance in American cinema, perhaps prompted by the success of 24 (the casting of Haysbert - who plays the president in the popular spy series - is surely no coincidence). But where Syriana took its subject matter from today’s headlines and The Good Shepherd offered an epic historical overview, Ray’s film uses the spy game (much as he used journalism in Shattered Glass) as the battleground for an archetypal struggle; between the betrayer compelled to continue, almost hoping to be caught, and the nemesis tainted by the unmasking process, even when done for the best of motives.

Add a fair dollop of father-son conflict and you’ve got a recipe for dramatic tension. Ray keeps it low-key and deliberate, the look evoking 70s paranoia classics such as All The President’s Men and Three Days Of The Condor. It may be a little too static and slow-paced at times, and there isn’t enough probing of Hanssen’s motives (why did he keep working for the Russians after the fall of communism, for example, when the country became a nominal ally of America?) or the sexual double life he led, and which helped to bring him to the authorities’ attention.

It is also in no doubt as to who are the good guys and the bad guys. The fact that America was simultaneously running (and still runs) its own Hanssens around the world is never explored. In fact, the film almost seems nostalgic for the certainties of the Cold War and its aftermath (Hanssen was convicted just a few months before 9/11), an era where you could get close to your enemies and the two sides bore some resemblance to each other. Not quite a classic of the genre then, but anyone who, like me, finds the world’s second-oldest profession perennially fascinating should definitely arrange a rendezvous.

Reviewed on: 17 Jul 2007
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Breach packshot
A young, ambitious FBI agent is ordered to spy on his boss, who the organisation believe has been betraying his country for 20 years.
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Darren Amner ***1/2
Moominkat ***

Director: Billy Ray

Writer: Adam Mazer, William Rotko, Billy Ray

Starring: Chris Cooper, Ryan Phillippe, Laura Linney, Dennis Haysbert, Caroline Dhavernas, Kathleen Quinlan, Gary Cole, Bruce Davison

Year: 2007

Runtime: 110 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US


EIFF 2007

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The Good Shepherd
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