Chris Cooper owns Breach in a way that makes it impossible to imagine anyone else in the role.
You don't usually see nomination-level, showcase performances this early in the year, but Cooper delivers at the highest level in an expertly rendered piece of work that's even more impressive than his best supporting actor turn in Adaptation -- and perhaps anything else the versatile Cooper has done in his career.
About the only thing ineffective about Breach is the humdrum title. Everything else in this smart thriller works like a perfectly crafted Latin Square puzzle.
It's one of the best movies of its kind since the criminally underrated The Falcon and the Snowman (1985), which features the seminal performance of Sean Penn's early career.
Breach is based on the stunning, true-life story of Robert Hanssen, the FBI agent-turned-spy for the Soviets whose betrayal of his country has been called the most egregious security leak in U.S. history.
Prior to his arrest on espionage charges in 2001, Hanssen spent most of his 25-year career selling classified information to Russia/the Soviet Union -- in the process revealing the identities of KGB double agents, thus compromising their very lives.
He sits in a super-maximum security facility in Colorado with no chance for parole -- spared the death sentence only because he cooperated with authorities after his arrest.
This is the story of how Hanssen finally got caught. Director Billy Ray mined similar material in the crisp and excellent Shattered Glass, the scathing biopic of the pathologically deceptive "journalist" Stephen Glass.
In both cases, we know the story will end with the lead villain caught with both arms up to his elbows in the cookie jar -- yet even as we root for the perpetrator to be caught and marvel at his audacity and the scope of his deceit, we find ourselves sympathizing with him and understanding why so many people could be fooled by his act.
Ray has a knack for creating stylized moments that are surely more dramatic than the way things played out in real life, without compromising the greater truth of the story. He is a premiere "proceduralist," if you will.
As played by Cooper, the Chicago-born Hanssen is a self-righteous, pious man who attends Mass every single morning and frowns on any sort of moral weaknesses in his colleagues.
When he walks into his office, he has the command of the room and the superior demeanor of an NFL coach entering a press conference.
Hanssen is all about his marriage and his family and his devotion to his country, and he proudly declares he couldn't care less about winning promotions or awards -- even as he seethes about his windowless office and his lack of recognition. He serves his God and his country and his family, and to him there's no higher calling.
Or so he would have you believe. In reality, Hanssen is so bitter about his lack of advancement through the ranks (despite his scary intelligence level and his coldly efficient style) that he sells secrets to the enemy for cash and diamonds.
Even his home life is a lie.
Hanssen is a bit of an Internet porn aficionado, and he enjoys surreptitiously taping his lovemaking sessions with his wife and sharing them with pen pals.
Special Agent Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney, in the kind of sensible-skirt part that could be described as "the Laura Linney role") is obsessed with Hanssen in a Les Miserables kind of way, only with more justification.
She's been gathering material on him for years, and she's convinced he's a traitor -- but she's still looking for that smoking gun. Burroughs, who has never married and seems to have no life outside the bureau, believes her entire career will be a washout if she can't nail Hanssen.
Curious, then, that she would choose the inexperienced albeit ambitious and bright young Eric O'Neill to infiltrate Hanssen's world and in effect become a double-agent reporting on the double-agent.
O'Neill is ostensibly hired as Hanssen's new assistant, but his real job is to record every move Hanssen makes and retrieve evidence that will enable the FBI to apprehend him.
(Lurking on the fringes of the story as FBI brass who are in on the investigation, we have the reliable and welcome likes of Dennis Haysbert and Gary Cole.)
O'Neill is played by Ryan Phillippe, who continues to darken his hair and furrow his brow in an effort to make us forget the callow, shirtless stiff from Cruel Intentions and I Know What You Did Last Summer.
It's working. To his credit, Phillippe took ensemble roles in A-level films such as Gosford Park, Crash and Flags of Our Fathers, turning in credible work in these parts.
He does maybe his best work to date as O'Neill, who is at first completely overmatched by a boss who seems to possess almost supernatural powers.
(O'Neill's first lame attempt to snoop in Hanssen's office comes crashing down when Hanssen returns, sniffs the air like a TSA-trained dog, and casually tells O'Neill he'll be in serious pain if he ever goes into the office uninvited again.)
O'Neill grows attached to Hanssen and even begins to regard him as something of a father figure, even as Linney prods O'Neill to do whatever it takes (including risking his marriage) to nail the bastard.
Breach contains some finely crafted spy-game sequences, as when O'Neill tries to keep Hanssen out of his office while Haysbert and Co. dismantle Hanssen's car.
It also provides knowing glimpses into the home lives of the young married O'Neills, the career-woman Kate, and the putative family man, Robert Hanssen.
And Chris Cooper is so comfortable and natural that the movie might be over before you realize you just saw greatness.