Like the glaze covering an earthen vessel
are smooth lips with an evil heart.
An enemy dissembles in speaking
while harbouring deceit within;
when an enemy speaks graciously, do not believe it,
for there are seven abominations concealed within;
The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse—who can understand it?
I hope that actor Chris Cooper at last will achieve the recognition due him for his fine work, his portrayal of FBI traitor Robert Hanssen in Billy Ray’s The Breach being an incredible feat. Despite the fact that we know that the real traitor is in a federal prison in solitary confinement, director, actor and script work together to keep us in suspense as to how the agent, after twenty years of selling secrets to the Soviets, was finally entrapped.
When the ambitious Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe) is assigned to staff Hanssen’s new office, the young operative thinks the Agency is out to entrap a sex deviant, and so he dutifully keeps a record of all of his boss’s phone calls and comings and goings. Hanssen is an exacting boss, with a disdainful attitude toward his colleagues. He is also very devoted to his Catholic faith, attending Mass every day and belongs to Opus Dei, a Catholic lay organization devoted to preserving and spreading the pre-Vatican II faith.
O’Neill chafes under the burdens of his assignment, one of the latter being Hanssen’s taking an interest in him and his wife, inviting them to his home and urging him to become more active in the Catholic Church. The boss’s unannounced calls at the O’Neill’s home is especially troubling to his young wife. O’Neill thinks that the fast track to being promoted to a full agent does not consist of being a glorified secretary, so when he complains to his superior Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney), she reveals that the special project that Hanssen has been heading is a phony one, that they have good reasons for believing that Hanssen is selling secrets to the Soviet Union. Then the young operative, realizing that he is on the front line of the most important counter-intelligence operation in FBI history, settles in for the long haul.
As stated at the beginning, we know the outcome of the story, and yet such moments as when O’Neill obtains Hanssen’s palm pilot and has to download its contents before the always suspicious man returns to his office is very suspenseful. The script seems like it could have come from the pen of John le Carre, but its story is true, one that played out over many years, during which the identities of hundreds of our operatives behind the Iron Curtain was revealed by Hanssen, his treachery leading to the deaths of most of them. And this by a man obsessed with a rigid morality and faith in God! Chris Cooper has played many fascinating people during his career, but none as conflicted and devious as Robert Hanssen: it is a credit to his thespian skills that he leads us to both loathe and sympathize with the human being behind the traitorous acts. As we think about his double life Jeremiah’s words about the mystery of the human heart take on new meaning.
1) What do you make of Hanssen’s strong beliefs and yet his acts of betrayal? What other instances of a person’s compartmentalizing their life do you know of? How is this segregation of religion and life a danger to both? How do you think he can excuse his interest in internet porn and his taping of his private love life, not to speak of his betrayal of his country?
2) How does actor Cooper show his seething resentment at not being appreciated by the Agency and his sense of superiority to others? Compare the film’s depiction of a villain with that in such thrillers as the Mission Impossible or James Bond series.
3) Why do you think that O’Neill becomes attached to his boss despite what he learns about him? Did you feel sympathetic to him at times? What does his work cost him personally—in other words, do you a cross in his life?
4) What do you feel and think of Hanssen’s last words to O’Neill, “Pray for me” ?