Monday, May 19, 2008

Breach and the delicious duplicity of Chris Cooper

He’s played a hard-ass retired US Colonel and ball-busting father choking with unfulfilled homosexual desires that yield murderous impulses. He’s played a hunter of rare plants, deeply unsavoury, a quintessential outsider, yet the secret lover of Meryl Streep. He’s played a candidate for the Colorado governorship, grammatically challenged, neo-conservative, seemingly modelled after Dubya. He’s got thin lips, fried egg eyes, and can easily embody the pappy who never hits you but wields the threat always. These facts beg the question: who is this Chris Cooper guy, and can we trust him?

Clearly, the answer is no, and that’s precisely why its difficult to imagine Breach working as marvellously as it does without Cooper. He can be anybody in a way that keeps audiences unnerved, thus he’s so damn good as Robert Hanssen, the FBI agent convicted of treason in 2001 for selling US secrets for $1.4 million, an expert on Russian intelligence for 25 years before becoming the biggest traitor in US history.

Our first glimpse has him clutching a rosary in church: an instant acknowledgement of culpability in a movie so loaded with suspicion. Hanssen’s a devoted Catholic who loves playing with the grandkids. He doesn’t like to see woman in pantsuits. “The world doesn’t need another Hilary Clinton,” he sighs. He also seems to have a fondness for porn, especially when his wife’s the star. It’s this little vice that allows the Feds to assign Eric O’Neil (Ryan Phillippe) to spy on Hanssen without knowing the reality of the charges against him, thus becoming close to this conservative but weirdly charismatic man.

This is dream material for director Billy Ray, who explored another real-life double life with equal panache in Shattered Glass, his film about the boy wonder journalist who wrote dozens of fraudulent pieces for The New Republic before getting caught. Ray and co-writers Adam Mazer and William Rotko build suspense with tremendous confidence considering we know how it’s going to end.

Cooper is Ray’s biggest coup, but Laura Linney, as the Fed leading the investigation, is just as good. She’s tough: the way she slides a pager across a table at O’Neil when she could have easily handed it to him; the way she rarely moves a superfluous muscle. Phillipe is doomed to being less impressive in such company, but he keeps his performance clean and convinces, crucially so in the scenes where we see him develop reverence for Hanssen (O’Neil, schooled by Jesuits, had a soft spot for Jesus people). 

Breach opened last year, the same week as Ghost Rider, and it sort of vanished without making much of a dent at the box office. In any case, without a major star at its centre or shit blowing up, it probably never had much of a chance, and it’s a shame. It’s a very satisfying thriller.

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