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Suspenseful 'Breach' investigates a spy's faith, crimes

Ryan Phillippe (left) plays FBI agent Eric O'Neill, on the trail of Chris Cooper, as double agent Robert Hanssen . (Karen Ballard/Universal Pictures via Bloomberg News)

"Breach" is a spy thriller that doesn't do the things spy thrillers are supposed to do. There aren't any international datelines or slinky femme fatales, no poisoned darts or state-of-the-art widgets. Actually, there is one gadget: a late-'90s Palm Pilot. But there's precious little espionage where we can see it, and that's what makes the movie such a compelling and eerily effective little drama.

The stakes, of course, could have hardly been larger. On Feb. 18, 2001 , an FBI agent named Robert Hanssen was arrested at his Virginia home and subsequently convicted of spying for Russia over a period of two decades. In exchange for money and diamonds, Hanssen provided top-level national security information and the identity of U S agents, many of whom were never heard from again. The Department of Justice called his treason "possibly the worst intelligence disaster in U S history." He's spending the rest of his life in a Colorado supermax penitentiary, with no chance of parole.

Hanssen wasn't a field agent but an agency boffin -- a computer systems and technology expert who seems to have buried volcanic levels of resentment under the orderly demeanor of a devout Catholic. He was -- is -- a mystery of compartmentalization, and that is how the great, gray-faced actor Chris Cooper plays him. It's an unnerving performance, not least in the piousness that walks hand in hand with subterranean duplicity.

What isn't widely known about the Hanssen case is that it was primarily cracked by a young agent named Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe ), who was placed by the FBI in Hanssen's office as his secretary: a mole to trap a mole. O'Neill's superiors, led by agents Burroughs (Laura Linney ) and Plesac (Dennis Haysbert ), needed him to find a smoking gun. The problem was that Hanssen, paranoid by temperament and necessity, wasn't the sort to leave smoking guns lying around.

Sticking closely to the facts as they're known, "Breach" frames the issue as trust and Eric's way in as religion. Directed by Billy Ray (whose "Shattered Glass" was another pas de deux between a truth-seeker and a pathological liar), "Breach" shows the younger man jump-starting his lapsed Catholicism to seduce his boss. But how much is Eric responding to Hanssen's faith and how much to the older man's disgust with a bureaucracy that rewards yes-men and punishes the talented? What's more attractive, Hanssen's belief or his cynicism?

Phillippe's always been a slightly wooden actor, but that works for him here: We're as uncertain of Eric's allegiances as his boss is. (Eric's wife, an East German emigre played by Canadian actress Caroline Dhavernas, is even more in the dark, and the marriage predictably suffers.)

There are some neat, almost delirious scenes of suspense, most of which play against cliche. Instead of a car chase, there's a traffic jam along the Potomac: Hanssen wants to walk back to the office as Eric is getting orders by beeper to delay him. Even the film's sound design adds to the mood of overheard secrets: The off-screen zzzziip of a briefcase's side pockets is one of the more hair-raising moments here.

Ray is never quite sure how to treat Hanssen's faith, though, nor the knottier issue of a very Christian traitor. "Breach" barely mentions that the spy was a supernumerary in the conservative Catholic order Opus Dei, but when Hanssen and his wife (Kathleen Quinlan ) grab the younger couple's hands to say grace over dinner, the music surges like a horror film. What's it to be, then: "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" or "Going My Way" ?

"Breach" is more effective at leaving Hanssen's motives tantalizingly in the dark. Did the spy betray his country for the thrill, or the money, or revenge against a demanding daddy? To show the FBI he wasn't to be taken lightly? To show God? The art of Cooper's performance is that he suggests all these things at once, leaving us stranded between pity and contempt. He's a righteous nerd of a spook, and he haunts himself the most.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

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