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Inside Traitor

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Building an effectively suspenseful drama around established historical events is, of course, entirely possible. Think of Alan J. Pakula's All the President's Men as an example. By the time the picture appeared, everyone knew that the dogged Watergate scandal reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein eventually led to Richard Nixon's resignation as president. But the movie of those events worked because it showed us how the reporters got their story and dramatized the roadblocks and dangers they faced in the process. Billy Ray's current Breach has got powerful material to work with -- the biggest national security failure in American history -- but fails to show us either the how or the why of what happened.

Written by Ray, Adam Mazer and William Rotko, Breach is the story of the February 2001 arrest of Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper), an operative within the FBI who tipped off the Russians to the identities of 50 U.S. intelligence agents, at least three of whom were executed. For years, Hanssen was a lead FBI analyst on Russian affairs. He was so trusted by his superiors that when it became apparent the Russians had a mole inside the Bureau, Hanssen was put in charge of catching himself. The film starts with the news of Hanssen's arrest and backs up two months to detail the process by which he was finally taken down. Top level FBI officers Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney) and Dan Plesac (Dennis Haysbert) already know what Hanssen has done but want to catch him in the act of passing secrets to the Russians so he will face maximal prosecution. To this end, they transfer him from Russian affairs to information security (he's a computer whiz among other talents) where they install him in a custom-built office enabling constant surveillance. They also assign him neophyte FBI employee Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe) to work as his assistant. If O'Neill can help catch Hanssen red-handed (so to speak), the rookie might be promoted to agent.

Hanssen is a fascinating character, well worth the kind of exploration undertaken here. He's a devout Catholic who hangs a crucifix in his office and goes to mass every day. He's a devoted family man, evidently deeply in love with his wife Bonnie (Kathleen Quinlan). He's a 25-year government employee with a record of reliability and quality performance. He's careful and thorough, and he possesses impressive linguistic, analytical and technological skills. On the other hand, he's been selling state intelligence secrets for more than a decade. Moreover, Burroughs assures us, he's a sexual deviant. What all that deviancy may include we're never told, but he's been taping his lovemaking sessions with Bonnie (without her knowledge we're told at one point -- kind of hard for me to believe) and selling them over the Internet.

Breach might profitably have kept its focus almost exclusively on Hanssen's reactions as the noose tightened around him. In a presumed bid for a more youthful audience, however, the picture spends much of its running time on O'Neill, an idealistic young man trying to navigate the FBI's complicated bureaucratic and political waters in hopes of advancing his career. O'Neill is also a serious Catholic and devoted husband. But in detailing the strains his job places on his marriage and the frustration his beautiful wife Juliana (Caroline Dhavernas) experiences in being kept in the dark about her husband's unpredictable schedule, the picture revisits ground better covered elsewhere, most recently in The Good Shepherd. In the final analysis, O'Neill's career ambitions and marital difficulties are of little relevance or enduring interest.

What we want to know is the how and the why of Robert Hanssen's traitorous activities. How does this business of selling state secrets work? How do the Russians identify Hanssen in the first place? Or does he make the first contact, and if so, with whom? How much is a secret worth? Though we see him slipping stacks of bills under the floorboards of his home, the film never tells us how much money Hanssen makes from committing treason. And what does he do with the money? How does he make a significant improvement in his lifestyle without that fact being noticed? And is money finally the incentive? The film makes reference to resentment Hanssen feels about not having some of his ideas adopted. But the notion that professional frustration and jealousy stimulate his crimes is never adequately explored.

Meanwhile, we haven't any clear notion of how to deal with Hanssen's sexual activities. Bonnie doesn't seem a likely partner for the rough sex we're told he brags about in Internet postings. Frankly, by the film's end, I wondered if the sex charges were bogus, an FBI set-up for use if it couldn't stop Hanssen any other way. I admire the nuanced performance Chris Cooper contributes here, but in the end, Breach fails to satisfy because it doesn't provide answers to the very questions that make its subject so innately interesting.

Veteran FBI agent Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper) is watched - by fellow officer Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe) in the thriller - Breach. - SUPERDOME PRODUCTIONS LOUISIANA SUPERDOME

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