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To Catch a Spy 

Spoiler alert! Breach actually starts with a spoiler. In fact, the opening moments of the film, featuring TV footage of former Attorney General John Ashcroft early in 2001 give away the ending. While in some circumstances, that kind of thing could be forgiven, this is isn't one of them. This is a potboiler -- a combination mystery-thriller about a high-level FBI agent who might or might not be guilty of espionage and treason. It's a story of how a young pup of an FBI man is thrown into the fray, ordered to work with this mysterious veteran, dig into what makes him tick and then get some proof that he's not one of the good guys.

If you do know how it turns out, your two hours with the film won't be wasted -- this is, after all, a gripping story. But my suggestion is to plug your ears and blink your eyes for the film's first two or three minutes, until Ashcroft's face is gone from the screen. And don't go Googling for information about FBI agent Robert Hanssen beforehand. You'll enjoy the film much more, and you won't know where it's headed.

Hanssen is played by the amazing Chris Cooper, an actor who's been having a heyday since his turn as a repressed Marine colonel in American Beauty (1999) and his Oscar and Golden Globe wins for his supporting role in Adaptation (2002). That he's been starring in movies for two decades still comes as a surprise to some people, but checking out Matewan and City of Hope and, more recently, Seabiscuit, should provide some illumination.

His Hanssen is one complex character: loving husband, deeply religious, distant, eventually father-like, good with a gun. Cooper plays him with a scowl that's equal to Clint Eastwood's squint. And he makes him impossible to read, both for Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe), the agent assigned to watch him and for the rest of us watching from our theater seats.

O'Neill, who has shown to be a promising lawman, is told by his humorless boss, Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney), that he's on an important job here, and that no one, including his wife (Caroline Dhavernas), is to know anything about it. Being a secretive FBI agent, Burroughs also neglects to tell O'Neill what he's actually looking for.

This does not bode well for the new relationship that's to be forged by the two men. Hanssen doesn't know he's being watched; O'Neill, his new "assistant," doesn't know what he's watching. Adding to the conflict, O'Neill likes to talk, while Hanssen prefers to make his thoughts clear with a quick, furtive glance.

The film is given an uneasy energy via Linney's portrayal of the powerful but anxious Burroughs, who continually demands results from O'Neill's stilted investigating. But it finds its power through Hanssen as he bulls his way through the FBI office, ignoring protocol, getting done what he needs to get done, regularly bringing up his own patriotism and, with fire in his eyes, talking about the "enemies of this country."

An excellent balance is maintained through Phillippe's low-key portrayal of a man who feels he's in over his head, who is filled with self-doubt and who worries that other people might think he's a lightweight.

But the film loses some of its intrigue when the script starts to explore what's going on with workaholic O'Neill's home life. His confused wife, witnessing some aberrant behavior, wants to know what he's gotten himself into at work. In dealing with the idea that he can't talk about it, the dialogue dips into clich & eacute; territory. Another sequence, in which O'Neill is doing some snooping in Hanssen's office and Hanssen is heading back to his desk earlier than expected, is also full of clich & eacute;s. Yes, our pulses get to pounding, but it's a scene we've witnessed many times before.

Fortunately, these gaffes take up very little screen time, and director Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) is adept at making the tension build slowly, quietly, inexorably. And working with his two lead actors, he successfully achieves a difficult feat: imbuing one of them with sympathy while giving the other a credible character arc.

My only real regret as a viewer -- aside from the ending being given away -- is that there isn't more about Burroughs, since Linney offers up such an interesting portrayal of a character with so many unpeeled layers. But Cooper remains the film's prize: In the final shot, the look on his face, the way he holds his body -- these images will haunt you for some time.

Worth $9
Rated PG-13
Directed by Billy Ray
Starring Chris Cooper, Ryan Phillippe, Laura Linney

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