Wednesday, February 14, 2007

WWJD... What would J. (Edgar) do?

Spy thriller Breach seems like the most openly religious film in recent memory. It begins with a man praying in church, ends with him asking for prayer, and depicts in between a conservative Christian family man doing all the things a conservative Christian family man does.

Granted, that man here is also a sexual deviant and the most devastatingly traitorous mole for America's enemies ever to escape a well-deserved death sentence.

Stands to reason. Guys who slam Hillary Clinton, decry the country's vulnerability to attack and exhort co-workers to draw nearer to God only see the light of a multiplex film projector when they're total hypocrites and sociopaths.

Still, it's a brilliant film.

Breach gives the play-by-play on the takedown of FBI agent Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper), the high-ranking Cold War veteran busted in pre-9/11 2001 after a career of selling out U.S. interests to the Russians. The extent of the damage done is still classified, though we know he handed our agents over to death on at least one occasion.

By all acounts, Hanssen was an enigma and a complicated guy. Probably more complicated than merely a troubled, well-armed, Catholic version of Jim Bakker. And had his other appetites extended beyond sex tapes of his wife and a fixation on Catherine Zeta-Jones into the same-sex realm, you can bet "sexual deviant" wouldn't have even made the script.

But apart from that and a line about the investigation of Bill Clinton being a witch hunt, Breach is a serious, gripping, and remarkably non-partisan film. Presidents come and go merely as photos on the Bureau's wall. John Ashcroft is depicted in an even light. And whatever Hanssen was or wasn't outside of church, those who took him down are depicted as heroes, the rare feds genuinely looking out for the country's best interests and proud of it.

It's also a masterpiece of Hitchcock-style tension. Expect no shootouts or car chases (high speed, anyway) but an edge-of-your-seater nonetheless.

With his Shirley Temple pout, babyfaced Ryan Phillippe is hard to buy initially as the operative planted in Hanssen's office to out-spy the master spy. But that's the point. Even the paranoid Hanssen didn't see this kid coming. As the mouse one slight step ahead of the cat, and occasionally in its mouth, Phillippe turns out to be the ideal protagonist for this kind of thriller. (Enjoy the tinglies you get from seeing the killer about to enter the office our hero is ransacking for evidence? This one's for you.)

Forget cat... Hanssen was pure snake. And Chris Cooper, with his heavily lidded gaze and darting red tongue embedded in a colorless face -- tip of the hat to cinematographer Tak Fujimoto for the cold-blooded look of the film -- somehow nearly becomes one. He's spectacular, the spookiest spook since Hannibal Lecter, the original.

Oddly, the film hedges its bets regarding Hanssen's ultimate motives, satisfied that "obsessed religious fanatic" is close enough. Yet Cooper's villainous mojo fuels a thinking man's thriller, a subtle character study already fascinating for its true crime grounding. Yes, including the religious angle... Now if only the filmmakers hadn't had such a good time working it.

No comments: