The best thing that can be said about Breach is that it isn’t directed by Tony Scott. Billy Ray’s dramatization of F.B.I. upstart Eric O’Neill’s work to ingratiate himself with Robert Hanssen in order to suss out the man’s history of espionage is told in the unpretentious manner of Shattered Glass: as a series of heart-stopping confrontations, big and small, between men whose relationship to each other is predicated on a colossal sham. On the command of the ironfisted Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney, unimaginatively typecast), O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe) is brought in to spy on Hanssen (Chris Cooper) for alleged sexual perversion, only the would-be F.B.I. agent learns that his boss is possibly selling secrets to the Soviet Union. (Cooper’s fabulist is not as nebbish as Hayden Christensen Stephen Glass, but they’re both control freaks haunted by the threat of exposure.) Caught in the middle of one of the most embarrassing episodes in the history of the F.B.I., O’Neill sees his relationship with his wife crumble to pieces and his investigation of Hanssen compromised by his growing fondness for the man.
Ray’s camera does not linger on the beads of sweat that stick to Phillippe’s forehead whenever he infiltrates his boss’s office, foreign cultures aren’t condescended to, and Dakota Fanning doesn’t appear to play the piano, but Ray’s shunning of action-movie clichés is no triumph in the end. The director views O’Neill’s relationship to Hanssen, who is something of a human polygraph test, with a problematic measure of revulsion and compassion: O’Neill respects Hanssen because of their shared religious beliefs, but Ray only sees crassness in the older man’s spiritual devotion. Because Ray doesn’t care to understand O’Neill beyond his obsessive connection to God (buying literature at a Christian bookstore, going to church every day, and seducing his wife after she prays by their bedside), the man’s paranoia and anti-Americanism come to register as byproducts of his faith. This, like the shot of pictures of Bill Clinton and Janet Reno being replaced with those of George W. Rush and John Ashcroft, which is meant to insinuate that Republican rule was somehow responsible for O’Neill’s abuses, is itself an act of deception.