The case of Robert Hanssen, the most disastrous turncoat in U.S. history, is probably still hanging somewhere in the back of most of our minds. In the golden age before terrorism, when the bad guys still drank vodka, Hanssen sold U.S. secrets to the Soviets for more than 20 years until his arrest in February 2001. His story is of self-destruction of the highest order, perfectly invoked by Chris Cooper (“Syriana”) and even more masterfully conceived by writer/director Billy Ray (“Shattered Glass”).

Though urban legend often dismisses him as a subpar agent who sold secrets just to feel important, Hanssen was in fact brilliant. Hiding a trail in a building full of hounds isn’t easy, and it would take nothing short of genius to pull off once what Hanssen did hundreds of times. Knowing the weaknesses of the FBI inside out, Hanssen was nearly untouchable – until the arrival of a young agent named Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe, “Flags of Our Fathers”).

Assigned to be Hanssen’s secretary, O’Neill’s real mission is to note his boss’s every move and report back to agency superiors. He isn’t even told what he’s to watch for, only that Hanssen is a “sexual deviant” who may bring shame to the agency. But after months of stalking a man who goes to church every morning at 6 a.m. and seemingly has nothing in his life but a job and a loving family, Eric finally lets his guard down. And of course, that’s when it hits him.

Cooper’s portrayal of Hanssen’s twisted genius, his unbearable need for approval and perpetual loneliness is flawless. He is abetted in no small part by Ray, who previously told the story of an almost-as-manipulative, broken man (Hayden Christensen as infamous plagiarist Stephen Glass) in “Shattered Glass.” The union of a director who understands supreme deception and an actor who unflinchingly melts into the mold of a master deceiver creates a near-perfect thriller.

Given that the film doesn’t attempt to hide its ultimate outcome (the opening gives it away even for those who can’t remember the pre-Sept. 11 world), it’s impossible to fathom how it could manage so much tension and create a plot so taut. Much like he did in “Shattered Glass” and subsequently as a co-writer for “Flightplan,” Ray makes character flaws, mistakes and triumphs the film’s focus – so much so that the story itself becomes almost secondary. And that’s the key in a drama about consummately human fallacies – never let the storytelling overshadow the characters, whose real actions are far more devastating than anything a writer could come up with.

For his part, Phillippe is also at his best, though overshadowed by the consuming presence of Cooper’s traitor. He’s the hero of this story, without whose daring efforts investigators would never have had the evidence to convict Hanssen, and yet we oddly find ourselves rooting against him.

This is because Ray succeeds not only in building Hanssen up as the ultimate in fraud and guile, he also manages to make him touchingly real and human. The fact that this film can take even a nefarious traitor like Hannsen and cut strictly to his innermost motivations while avoiding imminent judgment marks it as a rare accomplishment.

At Quality 16 and Showcase

Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars

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