In February, 2001, Robert Hanssen, a senior agent with 25 years in the FBI, is arrested for spying. Jump back two months: Eric O'Neill, a computer specialist who wants to be made an agent is assigned to clerk for Hanssen and to write down everything Hanssen does. O'Neill's told it's an investigation of Hanssen's sexual habits. Within weeks, the crusty Hanssen, a devout Catholic, has warmed to O'Neill, who grows to respect Hanssen. O'Neill's wife resents Hanssen's intrusiveness; the personal and professional stakes get higher. How they catch Hanssen and why he spies become the film's story. Can O'Neill help catch red-handed "the worst spy in history" and hold onto his personal life? Written by
For the film, the production team wanted the audience's point of view to be Eric M. O'Neill's point of view - one in which O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe) starts off in the dark about what was really happening with Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper). Through dramatic license, director Billy Ray ensures the key piece of information is held back from O'Neill until halfway through the film, when O'Neill finally confronts Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney) about the real reason for his assignment. See more »
When Robert Hanssen is making his final "dead drop" of government secrets in a metro DC park in February, the sound track includes the distinct sound of robins singing. Robins do not migrate into the DC area until many weeks later. See more »
Sunday, the FBI successfully concluded an investigation to end a serious breach in the security of the United States. The arrest of Robert Hanssen, for espionage, should remind us all, every American should know, that our nation, our free society, is an international target, in a dangerous world.
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I was surprised at how effective this was. You know from the very beginning how it will end. You know because it is a true story that there will be no trendy plot twists. You expect, and find, that the young assistant is built around a cliché, as is Hanssen's Catholicism, which oddly ignores the role of Opus Dei in this venture, and focuses on prayer instead of devotion.
And there is a formulaic bit about damaging fathers and odd wives. More: there's the project command center that is drawn from movies and not from life. And finally, our hero is told the FBI's biggest secret in an open public place. This would never ever happen, and it is staged this way only to help the pacing of the thing in terms of stagecraft. And that DIA computer room, with the nice clean Cray-like machines, is from the same fantasy world as "Red October's" neon-lighted missile tubes.
But in spite of all this, it works. And especially compared to "The Departed," it works, simply, cleanly, deeply.
That's because the filmmaker decided early in the game that he was going to do what the Hong Kong "Infernal Affairs" did well and others copied: this business of actors playing characters who are actors. In this case, we have two such in the same boat.
We have a top information manager at the FBI working for the Russians and acting normal, even when leading the hunt for himself. We have the young under cover guy pretending to be simply a clerk. Each intuits the other is watching. The older man completely wins at the start, with the younger man eventually besting him in artifice. Its a calculation that the filmmaker makes, when deciding not to tell us why our young hero does what he does and where he gets the tools. In an ordinary story, that would hurt, but here it is a wise decision because such "explaining" would get in the way of the economy of the thing. And it is all about economic connection with us.
Its a bit counterintuitive that effective stories sometimes get better by lopping off story elements and information. But it is true. Some students of the Hanssen case believe that Hanssen's primary motive was to show his own importance (as a information security planner) by revealing holes in the system that he would have plugged. I wish this film would have worked with that a bit, because this notion of helping the system by hurting is system is both what the story could have been about and the means used to tell the story.
Still, a good one.
As a historical note, there's a reason folks from the FBI and CIA, even senior ones, can't wander into NSA computing facilities. Hanssen wasn't allowed, probably a good thing at the time. Opus Dei again.
Ted's Evaluation -- 3 of 3: Worth watching.
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