‘Breach’ gets the spy story right

It looks like someone finally got this spy story right.

In 2002, I watched the television movie “Master Spy: The Robert Hanssen Story,” starring William Hurt and written by Norman Mailer. While I was intrigued by the real-life story of one of America’s most brazen double agents, who, over 20 years sold our national intelligence secrets to the Russians, the TV film seemed lackluster. Fortunately, the same can’t be said of “Breach,” a tight, involving thriller that covers more elements than the TV movie and is enhanced by Chris Cooper’s mesmerizing performance as Hanssen.

Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe) is an FBI agent-in-training who realizes he has a long way to go before he’s handling top assignments. When his boss, Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney), brings him in for a special assignment to work as a clerk for Agent Robert Hanssen and while spying on him to determine if he’s a sexual predator, Eric is beyond excited.

Within days, things don’t add up, and Eric is not sure why he has to shadow the arrogant, rigid and unfriendly Hannsen. He tells Kate he wants off the case. That’s when she reveals the real reason he’s there. They believe Hanssen is the most treasonous agent the United States has ever had and could even be responsible for the deaths of other agents. Once Kate explains they need him to get the evidence on Hanssen, Eric agrees to stay on the job. However, he soon realizes he’s in way over his head.

Director Billy Ray, who brought the highly intriguing “Shattered Glass” - we’ll forgive him for “Flightplan” - to the screen, guides moviegoers through the captivating story of how O’Neill worked in fear of his life every minute. Somewhat naive in the beginning, he learns that Hanssen is methodical in every move he makes. While he seems to befriend Eric, telling him how to handle his marriage and how the Catholic religion is the only one that’s right, Eric learns through his superiors that Hanssen is a dangerous man who could kill Eric if he gets any hint the clerk is trying to set him up.

Particularly tough on Eric is his new marriage to Juliana (Caroline Dehavernas). When his job begins to involve nights, weekends and even a visit to Hanssen’s for dinner, Juliana is not happy. Eric can’t reveal to her why all this is happening, and his stress builds.

Another reason the film is so enthralling is that real-life FBI agent Eric O’Neill, now retired, assisted in the production of “Breach,” and filmmakers had the cooperation of the FBI.

The film couldn’t have worked so well without actors who understood the dynamics between Hanssen and O’Neill. Cooper (“Seabiscuit”) won the role hands down even though top actors fought for it, and he persisted with his chilly treatment of Phillippe even when the cameras weren’t rolling.

“I think the day of our introduction was the nicest I was to Ryan, and I preferred to keep it that way. And that’s the same method I used to work with Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘October Sky.’ It didn’t call for a chummy atmosphere on the set, and that was fine for Ryan and necessary for me.”

Phillippe (“Flags of Our Fathers,” “Crash”) said, “I was really nervous screen testing with Chris Cooper because I idolize the guy. I think that actually helped me in some ways when playing this part.”

Chris Cooper knew he wanted this role immediately.

“As a rule, if I’m interested in a script I’ll read it three or four times before I make a strong decision,” he said. “This was unusual, it took one reading.”

Other actors who play key roles in creating a fascinating movie include Linney (Kinsey) as the tough senior agent who considers the breach of trust on her country as a personal attack, and Dennis Haysbert as a special agent on the team out to catch Hanssen.

Cooper, an Oscar winner for “Adaptation,” ranks as one of our finest actors and doesn’t miss a beat in the Jekyll-and-Hyde personality of Robert Hanssen. He makes it easy to get what O’Neill is going through and just how devious and dangerous Hanssen was during his FBI tenure.

“Breach” is a story about trust and betrayal - one where most people know what happens in the end. But it still keeps you on the edge of your seat the entire time.