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|R E V I E W B Y R I C H C L I N E
dir Billy Ray
scr Adam Mazer, William Rotko, Billy Ray
with Chris Cooper, Ryan Phillippe, Laura Linney, Caroline Dhavernas, Kathleen Quinlan, Gary Cole, Dennis Haysbert, Bruce Davison, Jonathan Watton, Tom Barnett, Jonathan Potts, David Huband
release US 16.Feb.07,
07/US Universal 1h40
Who are you: Cooper and Philippe
Slow and steady, sure-handed and gripping, this spy thriller is even more astonishing because it's based on the true story of the biggest security breach in American history.
From December 2000 to February 2001, the FBI worked to stop its worst-ever leak, assigning the trainee agent Eric O'Neill (Phillippe) to keep track of his supposedly sex-mad boss, Robert Hanssen (Cooper). After watching the squeaky-clean, deeply religious Hanssen and his wife (Quinlan) for a few weeks, O'Neill tells his handler (Linney) that she's barking up the wrong tree. At which point he learns that Hanssen has actually been supplying secrets to the Russians for more than 20 years. Suddenly, it's a little more serious. And O'Neill can't even explain himself to his neglected wife (Dhavernas).
Director-cowriter Ray (Shattered Glass) takes his time building the plot, making sure we get up close and personal with the characters. As a result, the film really holds our attention and allows us to engage strongly with the moral complexities. Rather than a simplistic tale of good and evil, this is a story of shadows--good men doing terrible things and villains who know they're morally bankrupt. And even though Hanssen is one of the worst traitors America has ever seen, we can still see things in him to admire.
The performances are solid. Philippe carries us through the film with a wide-eyed willingness to see the situation as it is. His early admiration for Hanssen is fully understandable, and as he's required to lie to everyone around him, we can feel the noose tightening. It's a slightly simplistic performance--there's no nuance to truly bring O'Neill to life--but it works for this character. And it especially well because Cooper is a grand master at subtext. He's utterly mesmerising from start to finish.
It's great to see a film that's willing to grapple with religious and moral issues for a change, rather than simplifying a story to the bare bones. This might put off action/thriller fans, but it also makes the story far more resonant and textured than the average Hollywood spy movie. And the recent timeline gives it an urgency we can still feel.
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© 2007 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall
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