In 2001 Robert Hanssen was arrested and charged with espionage and selling U.S. secrets to the Russians. Over a 15 year period it is alleged that he gave up at least 50 U.S. operatives, resulting in three losing their lives, all for $1.4m in cash and diamonds. He is currently serving a life sentence in the Supermax Federal Penitentiary, Colorado, where for 23 hours of the day he is in solitary confinement, and it is unlikely he will see freedom again. The U. S. Department of Justice described the events as “possibly the worst intelligence disaster in U.S. history”. All of which, you would think, makes for an exciting espionage thriller to rival the fiction of Bourne and Bond. Well, think again. Director Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) obviously wanted his film grounded in reality and he keeps Hollywood artifice to a minimum.
The majority of the film's action takes place in the bland offices of the FBI. Forget the glass walled rooms and banks of flashing computer screens that most spy films adopt; we are in the real world here. Spying is done by grey men, in grey rooms buried within grey buildings and it does not make for exciting cinema.
Hanssen is played by Chris Cooper, a very dependable supporting actor, here given the chance to shine centre stage. His Hanssen is a deeply religious family man with little humour in his life and, seemingly, only his wife and job to live for. We are told that he is a sexual deviant, but the only evidence presented to us is a home made porno and an interest in Catherine Zeta Jones. It is references such as this that jolt you into realising that you are watching a contemporary film, because to look at it the film looks like a relic of the seventies. Cooper's performance is a little too one note, never really conveying to us what made him betray the country that he loved, and never fully engaging our anger or sympathy.
As the man sent to infiltrate his web of lies, Eric O’Neill, Ryan Phillippe may seem too young to be given the job, until you realise that both actor and character are actually the same age, so if anything he is a little old. Once again the performance is a little one note, but then both actors are up against some pretty staid dialogue. His betrayal of his boss in the film's closing scenes should be filled with dramatic tension, but we are left wondering why this man feels so upset that he has betrayed him and why, in retrospect, does he feel any sympathy toward the man at all.
Elsewhere in the film some good supporting players do their best with what they are given. Laura Linney is all icy calm as Philippe’s superior, Dennis Haysbert pops up at the end to help dismantle a car and not a lot else and Gary Cole is nicely sleazy as Cooper’s colleague. Most hard done by though are Kathleen Quinlan and Caroline Dhavernas as the protagonists' spouses. Quinlan is given absolutely nothing to do, which is criminal for an actor of her calibre, while Dhavernas has to whinge every time she is on screen, which she does well but she is capable of so much more.
In the end it was Hanssen’s brother who alerted the FBI and got the surveillance ball rolling, a fact that is unfortunately overlooked by the scriptwriter here. It would have added an extra layer that the film could definitely do with. I’m sure this is very close to the way it happened, and I’m sure its representation of the inner workings of the FBI is remarkably accurate, it's just unfortunate that that kind of attention to detail doesn’t always make for riveting cinema.