dir: Billy Ray
Finally, a flick still playing in Melbourne cinemas, at least for the next day or two, that I can review for the hungry, hungry masses. Hungry for something that isn’t the third part in a series, perhaps. Pirates of Shrek’s Silver Spider Phoenix, Um, Three?
Do you know who Robert Hanssen is? Do you care about the single most hideous security breach in the history of the FBI that didn’t involve J. Edgar Hoover’s frilly underwear? Do you have the patience to watch a low-key, flat story about a deeply troubled individual whose surface hid terrible turmoil beneath told within the trappings of a bureaucratic thriller? No one gets shot with a silencer, no one gets stabbed with a poison tipped umbrella, no radioactive Polonium was used or harmed in the making of this movie. So you’ve been warned.
Hanssen was an FBI agent who sold a lot of government secrets to the pesky Russkies. This isn’t back in the height of the Cold War with Alger Hiss or the Rosenbergs; we’re talking about as recently as 2001. He was a fiercely devout Opus Dei Catholic who attended church daily, but also loved strippers and hookers with abandon. He was a staunch patriot, Republican etc etc, but also enjoyed secretly filming his wife whilst having sex with her and sending the tapes to friends of his. Personally I don’t see the contradiction with the last one, but I guess it’s supposed to represent how profound the difference was between the image and the reality.
Director Billy Ray has previously made a film about a person defined by and infamous because of their lies, being Shattered Glass, and now approaches the same kind of story with the stakes being much, much higher. Also, more budget, more recognisable actors, and more orchestral music used to absurdly melodramatic effect.
Aspiring FBI Agent Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillipe) is green but smart, and is selected by someone higher up in the Byzantine agency’s hierarchy to be an aide to Hanssen. There’s no mystery to the story even from the beginning: the FBI already knows they magnitude of the betrayal, we know because they tell us from the start, but for the first 40 minutes of the flick we have absolutely no indication from Hanssen’s behaviour that he is anything like what they say he is.
Everyone, from Hanssen to O’Neill to his handler played by Laura Linney, approaches the agent’s life in this emotionless, passionless way. We are given an insight into the lives of FBI agents that goes beyond chasing people and torturing them to find out whether they sniff girl’s bike seats or not. The film aspires to get to the daily reality of what it must be like to have to lie professionally all the time and to have to keep major parts of your life secret from the people you are closest to.
These people live horrible lives! No wonder Hanssen sells secrets to the Russians: life is so lifeless for FBI drones and their families, if this film is any reasonable representation, which it probably isn’t. They go about their joyless tasks in their grey environment motivated by something not immediately apparent. We learn as well that FBI agents are also never supposed to consume alcohol, even when they’re not on the job. Why? Because they’re considered to be always on the job. No wonder they commit high treason for kicks. Wouldn’t you?
Chris Cooper does a sterling job with the inscrutable Hanssen, portraying him as a deeply conflicted and fascinating individual, but the essential problem is that we never really get to peer under the surface. We only get hints of Hanssen’s double life in his obsession with the gorgeous but crappy actress Catherine Zeta Jones. The conflict between what he purports to be and what he ultimately does don’t really cohere with me: he’s an embittered, petulant sphincter at the beginning of the story and is much the same at the end.
What waxes and wanes is his enthusiasm in the self-appointed role of mentor to O’Neill. We know O’Neill is there with the express intention of clinching the deal on catching Hanssen in the act, but Hanssen obviously doesn’t. He’s an absurdly paranoid guy even for a double agent, so he never entirely seems to trust O’Neill. But he does see fit to lecture him constantly on matters of FBI culture and protocol, intelligence expertise, matters of faith and anything else that pops into his traitorous head. If it wasn’t for the fact that the story was about his betrayal of the United States, it would be one of those stories where a troubled, tough but fair older mentor helps a troubled young guy grow into being a better person / father / son / assassin. Think Scent of a Woman crossed with Good Will Hunting crossed with Inspector Gadget. Go Go Gadget Penis!
Maybe not the last one. The trouble, or virtue here is that Hanssen’s demons remain private from O’Neill and therefore from us. We get hints of a difficult relationship with his own father, but no exploration of those themes. O’Neill’s character act is even simpler: the strain of the case impacts adversely on his marriage, and he has to decide whether the stress of the job is ultimately worth it, independent of the result of the investigation.
It’s impossible to avoid comparing Ray’s latest film with his last film, and comparing the two main characters of Stephen Glass, who was finally caught out fabricating stories from whole cloth at the New Republic magazine, and Robert ‘Comrade’ Hanssen, and how they are portrayed. Both became notorious for lying, to different magnitudes and levels of effect, but are very different people. Glass as played by Hans Christian Haydenson got plenty more screen time representing his particular brand of sociopathy with the constant flows of drivel coming out of his mouth alternately trying to butter people up mixed in with fake self-deprecation and desperate histrionics. With Hanssen all we get that is revelatory are the contents of intercepts with his Russian handlers where he expresses his contempt for his co-workers and, ultimately, his profound loneliness. It’s not as compelling as a narrative device, when it comes down to it.
When they mention or bring up the sexual stuff, it's never explored to reveal anything additionally about the character. So he's got a few quirks and kinks: who doesn't? He was never accused of doing anything illegal from a smutty point of view, and I'm not sure how it relates to the betrayal he was responsible for. The film brings up the sexual stuff when Linney's character says 'and he's a sexual deviant', but never adequately represents what role it played in his life and his actions, and uses it only as background to show that he was a hypocrite. I can't say that I really buy it.
Two crucial iterations of the same concept, that when it comes down to it, motive is of less overall importance than who a person is, are powerful statements, but they are delivered in very implausible circumstances in scenes that do not ring true. The first time is during a scene that wouldn’t have been out of place in an episode of The Sopranos, and the second occurs in a moment that one would know from the ends of episodes of hackneyed detective shows on the telly like Columbo and Murder, She Wrote where the guilty person confesses the motivations, technical details and what they were wearing to someone once they are caught out.
One of the last scenes, designed to give closure, also rang so false that I actually laughed out loud. Whilst the sentiment involved was powerful, the whole scene up was ludicrous and couldn’t possibly have happened as depicted, not that it matters. Though it works dramatically, I begrudgingly guess, it’s not very credible.
What we really have here is a drama, where one guy is trying to fool the FBI and fails, and another guy tries to fool one guy, and succeeds. Though it has some fascinating little titbits about the intelligence community, you can’t really call it an espionage thriller. It’s about Hanssen and O’Neill, about who they are. Not why they are who they are, but who they are. Situated within the body of a bureaucratically mundane office intrigue scenario, it’s probably not to everyone’s tastes.
But it’s good enough for me. I think I like this director Billy Ray. Two swings and two hits as far as I’m concerned thus far. I’ll be curious to see what he does next.
7 times hookers and cocaine bring down even the most conservative Dudley Do-Rights out of 10
“Pray for me” - Breach.