`Breach' tells spy story that Sept. 11 eclipsed

CRITICS' PICK : NEW DVD'S

Critics' Picks: New Dvds

June 10, 2007|By Michael Sragow

BREACH -- Universal / 29.98

A key question of post-Sept. 11 life - "Whom can you trust?" - receives quietly horrifying treatment in Breach, the real-life tale of an espionage case that unfolded early in 2001 and that would have dominated headlines for many months had it not been for Sept. 11. Robert Hanssen spent 22 of his 25 years in the FBI divulging secrets to the U.S.S.R. and then to the new Russia. He passed along the names of KGB agents on the U.S. payroll as well as emergency protocols for relocating the president.

Part of the tale emerged after Hanssen was nabbed during an intel drop on Feb. 18, 2001. Breach becomes what tabloid features only promise to be, a "never-before-told story," because for the first time it reveals exactly how the FBI caught Hanssen in the act.

An FBI team enlists Eric O'Neill, a 26-year-old surveillance operative, to serve as Hanssen's assistant in a new "Information Assurance" department. O'Neill, like Hanssen, is a computer savant in a pen-and-paper culture; he's also a whiz kid in a corps that prizes skill with firearms and field experience over mental dexterity. Plus, he's Catholic, and Hanssen is so very old-school Catholic, he belongs to Opus Dei. The FBI team bets that Hanssen will see him as a protege, and that O'Neill will be smart and intuitive enough to nail him. For O'Neill, still finding his way in the agency and in his recent marriage, it's an existential risk, forcing him to challenge his own beliefs in family, state and religion.

As he showed in Shattered Glass, writer-director Billy Ray has a gift for re-creating circumstances in which mendacities thrive. Chris Cooper is spookily good as Hanssen, a man who double-deals and indulges in perverted sexual fantasies under a self-righteous facade.

The whole movie is haunted by Sept. 11, even though it takes place before that. Hanssen's critique of a backward FBI stings an audience today just as it puts O'Neill under his spell. And Ryan Phillippe is stirring and touching as O'Neill. The movie is cumulatively bone-chilling: You feel the tingle not all at once, but gradually moving up your spine.

Special features

Generous features augment the audio commentary by Ray and O'Neill. They include a segment from NBC's Dateline, March 5, 2001 - fascinating for extra information about Hanssen and lack of information about O'Neill, who wasn't yet declassified. The 18 minutes of deleted and alternate scenes offer a master class in streamlining narrative.

ALSO ANTICIPATED

THE ORIGINAL NANCY DREW MOVIE MYSTERY COLLECTION --Warner / $24.98

Just before Warner Bros. unveils the latest Nancy Drew, the studio's video arm will release Tuesday this complete four-movie set featuring the talented Bonita Granville in the role. Granville brings zest and just the right forward tilt to the spunky amateur sleuth in Nancy Drew: Detective (1938) and three sequels. She somehow wills her oval face to seem angular, sharp and quizzical, and she looks perfect behind the wheel of a peppy roadster. The narratives are tight, unpretentious and peppered with physical comedy and fond caricatures of small-town types such as a pompous police chief. Fans of the books tend to love these movies, even though the filmmakers rename Nancy's boy pal Ned Nickerson, "Ted" Nickerson.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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