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Directed By:
Billy Ray
Cast: Chris Cooper, Ryan Phillippe, Laura Linney, Caronline Dhavernas, Gary Cole

Written by:
Ricard Barberini

June 21 , 2007

Robert Hanssen was an FBI agent for 25 years and for almost 24 of those years, he spied for the Soviet Union and its successor state, Russia.  The question to this day remains; why did he do it?  We know from many books and the mountains of evidence gathered that he did not do it for money. 


In fact, he repeatedly mentioned that his needs were meager and anything over $100,000 was too much for him.  In twenty five years of espionage, he collected only $600,000.  Not a great amount of money for all that extremely dangerous work.  Thirty thousand dollars a year to betray your country and above all, all your sacred beliefs?   Nor did he do it for ideological reason since we know for sure that he was a very religious man.

The answer according to some is that it was the game.  He was playing the Russian roulette of his life toying with FBI and CIA waiting to see if he could be discovered.  As a man of superior intelligence he felt that he was above it all and indeed he was for over twenty years until he was, in turn, betrayed by the KGB moles.

Some might argue that, maybe it was all a hoax.  How do we know that Robert Hanssen did all the dirty deeds that they attributed to him?  Was Hanssen a real patriot who took the fall to cover up some vast CIA conspiracy to mislead the Russians?  Was the real mole in FBI turned to become a double agent and they needed a sacrificial lamb?  Maybe he is living some place in the USA under an assumed name. 

This is all theory, of course.  According to the movie and other sources, Robert Hanssen led a dual life.  He was an extremely devout patriot and a Catholic.  He was devoted to his family. According to some of his colleagues he even disliked going to strip clubs on special occasions to celebrate (or mourn, we would say) someone’s retirement.

So, as the story goes, Robert started spying for the Soviets in 1985 and continued to do so, with a few breaks, until the day that he was arrested.

In this movie, we are told that the FBI, having learned of Robert Hanssen’s treason, assigned a rookie, Eric O’Neal played by Ryan Phillipe, to be his assistant. Eric was a junior clerk at FBI who had been mainly involved in the unglamorous and boring assignments such as following suspected criminals and terrorists and taking pictures of them.  Remember that this all happened before 9/11 and terrorists were not high on FBI’s priority list. 

Eric was assigned by a senior FBI agent, Kate Burroughs played by Laura Linney, to be the new assistant to Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper).  Eric was told that Robert was a sexual deviant and was under investigation.  He was supposed to jot down everything that Hanssen did or said and hand them to his FBI contact Kate Burroughs on a daily basis.

Kate is supposed to be a highly dedicated agent whose life is built around her career at FBI to the extent that she lives alone, does not even have a cat and eats TV dinners at night.  We wonder what she does for sex!

Initially, Hanssen is seen as being resentful and even contemptuous of this upstart young kid.  He even suspected him of being a plant by FBI counter intelligence office.  

In due time Eric O’Neil managed to worm his way into his psyche and learned that Hanssen kept his secrets in his Palm Pilot which never leaves his side.  By manipulating events leading to Hanssen’s 25th anniversary at FBI, Eric manages to distract Hanssen long enough to take the Palm Pilot from his briefcase and copy the content.  FBI crypto analysts manage to break the code and reveal his extensive espionage activities for the Soviets.

The FBI which had assigned many agents to Hanssen’s case eventually caught him in the act when he made his last drop on February 18, 2001, at a park near his home.

As part of a plea bargain, Hanssen was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.  His wife and children were to receive his modest pension and Eric O’Neill left the FBI shortly thereafter to practice law.

The story is basically as it happened in real life with some modifications.  The original screenplay was written by Adam Mazer and William Rotko. They were relative new comers and did not include the fact that Eric O’Neil was the clerk that actually helped make the case against Hanssen.   When Billy Ray took over as the director, he discovered new facts about the case and almost completely rewrote the story. Billy Ray used Eric and his wife Juliana as his main sources for the movie.  The result is that the movie has a slightly lopsided propensity toward Eric, whereas in most of the books and TV specials Eric O’Neil is absent.

The movie is expertly directed.  However, Billy Ray in his revised script has turned this into more of a melodrama about a relationship between two men. What are missing is the nuts and bolts of the story.  How did they discover that Robert Hanssen was a double agent and how did they manage the surveillance on him.  It would have been extremely interesting to see some of the background events about how they conducted their long investigation.  Most of that information is in public domain or could be surmised by a good screenwriter.

The acting by Chris Cooper is superb.  Even though he does not look a lot like Robert Hanssen, he is such a talented actor that he manages to make us believe in the character that he is playing.  At times, we even felt sorry for him and his cause.

Ryan Phillippe as Eric O’Neill had the absolute luxury, as acting goes, of having the real Eric O’Neil as his beck and call during the filming.  Even so, he delivered a rather mediocre performance. 

Laura Linney as agent Kate Burroughs delivers a rather believable performance of a somewhat neurotic and frigid woman who has been battling against all odds to break the glass ceiling against women in executive jobs.  Kate tries to act as one of the boys to display that her time has arrived.  She is not bitchy or harsh, but she is all business and nothing else. If necessary, she will lie to get the job done, like when she tells Eric that Hanssen likes strippers.  First of all there is nothing wrong to be a stripper; it is a job albeit not a very nice job.  Secondly, Hanssen had only one stripper friend whom he was trying to save from a life of immorality.

Kathleen Quinlan plays the part of Bonnie Hanssen.  She is a religious woman totally oblivious to the fact that her husband maybe a traitor responsible for the death and torture of several double agents. 

The rest of the actors are non-consequential.  Dennis Haysbert plays Dan Plesac and Gary Cole has a small part as Rich Garces.  That is not to deny their acting abilities.  Dennis Haysbert is a good actor. Except in this movie he is just wall flowering.

The direction by Billy Ray is quite adequate and we are pleased that he did a good job here.  The story is a bit tilted though. 

We would like to add a few words about the cinematography by Tak Fujimoto.   It is easy to create wonderful nature shots when you are shooting outdoors.  However, it is not easy to make indoor shots in small rooms and hallways with florescent lighting.  The best you could do is to make the audience ignore the harshness of life under those conditions.  Tak Fujimoto succeeds in making those dreary inside office shots acceptable enough so we do not notice them.

We give this movie .starstarstarThere is some simulated sex between a husband and wife, but if you have kids over 10 they already know all that stuff.  We would recommend getting this DVD and watching it.

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