(Universal Pictures) Did you know that Arkham Asylum is real and that it's located in Florence, Colorado, 100 miles south of Denver? No one in Denver knows it either. It's actually known as ADMAX, Supermax, or the Alcatraz of the Rockies, and it holds the nation's most dangerous supercriminals — all of them. The facility contains 1,400 remote-controlled steel doors, laser beams, pressure pads, and attack dogs. The furniture in the cells, and the cells themselves, are made of poured concrete. The windows in the cells give only a view of the sky, so that inmates have no clear idea of the prison's layout. A former warden described it as “a cleaner version of Hell.”
Currently serving time there: the bosses and underbosses of several crime families; the founders of the Aryan Brotherhood; the Al-Qaeda operatives who carried out the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings, and the 9/11 attacks; the leaders of the Latin Kings, the Gangster Disciples, the United Blood Nation, the Mexican Mafia, and the Nuestra Familia gangs; the founder of one of the largest neo-nazi groups in the United States; a man who has escaped from three other prisons; the surviving conspirator in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing; the Unabomber; the Shoe Bomber; the Centennial Olympic Park Bomber; the most prolific known child molester in the world; several serial killers; and a former FBI agent named Robert Hanssen.
Robert Hanssen was the most successful spy this country has ever seen. He did billions of dollars' worth of damage to U.S. operations by selling secrets to the Russians, and he cost several U.S. operatives their lives by revealing their identities. His career is known as “the worst intelligence disaster in U.S. history.” He's the subject of director Billy Ray's captivating 2007 film, Breach.
Hanssen is played by Chris Cooper (The Town, The Bourne Identity), who gives him a dour charisma that's wonderful to watch. The film isn't really about Hanssen's life -- it's more about his capture and his motivations for selling out his country. Hanssen was under surveillance by another FBI agent, Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillipe, Crash, Gosford Park), who worked as his assistant while secretly reporting on him to a taskforce assigned to stop the security leak.
The real-life O'Neill served as a consultant on the film and can be heard on the DVD commentary giving background on the case. Phillipe's O'Neill is a fresh-faced, impressionable kid bucking for a promotion to agent by circulating a paper he's written on information security systems. He is recruited by Agent Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney) to keep tabs on Hanssen's activities. As far as O'Neill knows, he's monitoring Hanssen because Hanssen is a “sexual deviant” and possible embarrassment to the Bureau. However, O'Neill soon learns that it's not Hanssen's sex life the Bureau is really worried about.
Cooper, in one of his best performances, manages to capture the weird nuances of a highly contradictory and highly deluded man. Hanssen rails against the ineffectiveness of the FBI, even as he himself undermines it; he tells O'Neill about how his wife, Bonnie (Kathleen Quinlan, Apollo 13, American Graffiti), saved him from a life of sin by converting him to Catholicism, even as he exploits her for his own gratification. He also seems to genuinely see himself as a patriot, despite being one of the nation's worst traitors.
Linney, as usual, gives a great performance as O'Neill's handler -- a jaded but uncompromising woman dedicated to bringing Hanssen to justice. Scenes are claustrophobic and tense, despite there being very few moments where someone's life is actually in danger. To these people, what's at stake is far bigger than a few lives: it's the security of a nation and a sense of decency in the world.
For a man who did so much damage, Hanssen comes across as surprisingly non-threatening. His talent was to convince those around him that he was just like them. He was so convincing that the Bureau once put him in charge of a team tasked to hunt down the mole they knew was selling secrets from within — he was assigned to hunt himself. Perhaps he was too good at deception; Cooper's tight mouth and wary eyes tell the tale of a bitter individual who somehow persuaded himself he was doing the right thing by exploiting the weaknesses in the U.S. intelligence community. When it all finally comes apart, he's brilliant in his haunted air of resignation. After the final scene, the words, “Pray for me,” will never again sound the same.
Since Hanssen's fate is a matter of historical record, Breach doesn't focus on the machinations of spy vs. spy; instead, it's a tight, muted character study, and one of the best out there. To capture the essence of such a complicated man is no mean feat. To make the perpetrator of one of the greatest betrayals of our time into a relatable, even sympathetic character is a demonstration of pure magic.
For Fans Of: Donnie Brasco, The Good Shepherd, J. Edgar, The Departed, The Bourne Identity
Why We Like It: rich characterization, a true story that's more unbelievable than any spy thriller, relentless tension, unexpected emotional depths