Following the well-received Shattered Glass (2003), screenwriter Billy Ray continues his transition into a noteworthy directing career with another fact-based account of a con man whose web of lies caused calamitous damage to a venerable institution. Breach (2006) is touted as the true story of "master spy" Robert Hanssen, an FBI functionary whose sale of intelligence secrets over 22 years at the end of the Cold War constituted American history's single worst violation of government security. In truth, Ray's film is not really about Hanssen, who is a supporting character; the film's protagonist is Eric O'Neill, the baby-faced intelligence gatherer assigned to pose as Hanssen's assistant during the intense month-long investigation that resulted in his boss' arrest. Breach suffers slightly from its focus on the less-interesting of its two main characters, but less so because the bland rectitude of O'Neill is wisely presented as exactly the quality that allows him to succeed in ensnaring Hanssen, whose many self-delusions include the notion that he is highly moral.
Ray's directing style is restrained but intelligent, yielding center stage to his actors, whose performances are exceptional. Chris Cooper chooses the route of conveying the essence of Hanssen without overly imitating the man's specific traits; his work is a study in subtlety and nuance, outwardly embodying a man whose contradictions are almost completely internal. Laura Linney verges on parodying the secret-agent stereotype in a straight-razor style that would fit equally well in a Bureau training film or a cheeky episode of The X-Files. As the moon-faced, mouth-breathing O'Neill, star Ryan Phillippe is batted about by his co-stars like a pair of lethal jungle pumas toying with their cub, but this quality is, like the film itself, clearly intentional and thoroughly enjoyable. Breach is a low-key, quietly attenuated film that represents masterful work of substance over style by everyone involved.