Movie Review by Natalie Homer
Starring: Ryan Phillippe, Chris Cooper, Laura Linney, Caroline Dhavernas, Gary Cole
Director: Billy Ray
Ryan Phillippe has officially come of age in this excellent slow burning dramatic thriller, based on a true case that rocked the US secret services in 2001 (although I must admit I’d never heard of it).
Ryan plays a young enthusiastic FBI recruit, Eric O’Neill (real name) looking to fast track his way up to agent. O’Neill gets promoted out of his low level surveillance job into FBI headquarters to supposedly keep an eye on a high ranking sexual deviant agent before he becomes a liability to the FBI. In reality, he has been placed as assistant to Robert Hanssen (also real name), one of the US’s most notorious spies, to act as bait and trap someone who the FBI suspected had been a double agent for 22 years.
As Hanssen’s trust of the apprentice grows and O’Neill discovers the real reason he has been engaged, Phillippe finds himself caught up in a lethal game of spy vs. spy where failure to expose is not an option.
Chris Cooper (disturbed military dad in American Beauty) is superbly cast as Hanssen. He is obviously an incredibly intelligent but also delusional and deeply disturbed individual who likes to secretly tape himself having sex with his wife and post it onto the net while also attending church every single day.
The tension grows with Phillippe’s every close shave and Cooper’s every paranoid stare – one that truly disarms like few other actors (perhaps only De Niro and Al Pacino are the true masters of this ability).
If this were a book, it would be an absolutely compelling page turner however as a movie it’s not quite the “edge of seat” psychological thriller it could be. Unlike Donnie Brasco or Goodfellas where you are literally sweating into your chair, this lacks a little depth in that sense. Perhaps it is because the action begins with the real FBI press conference announcing Hanssen’s arrest and imprisonment (so we know how, when and why it ends) or perhaps because we are not told just how much information Hanssen sold to the Russians and the repercussions of his actions (apart from a little bit at the end where we are told most of this information remains classified information.)
Shot against a stark, fusty greyness of FBI offices, which they reconstructed exactly, it is a pity that after going to so much trouble, the production team that boasts hits such as THE SIXTH SENSE, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE and A BEAUTIFUL MIND allowed boom microphones to come into shot not once but twice.
For these reasons I can only give it the marking below but this does not detract from the superb performance by Phillippe, Cooper and the female cast – Hanssen’s wife, played by Kathleen Quinlan and Senior FBI agent driving the investigation, Laura Linney.