The evil that men do in a Fairfax County regional park
I’ve had a lot of fun over the past few years ridiculing Hollywood’s lame attempts to capture — or rather avoid — the gray, style-free ennui that is life in our nation’s capital. That’s why I’m proud to plant a big, fat wet one on either cheek of Billy Ray’s Breach, a triumph in bourgeoisie beige, so like life in the District that you’ll want to run, shrieking from the theater, out of pure boredom. Boring cars? Check. Boring clothes? Check. Boring lives? Check. The hottest machine in this flick is a sky-blue Camry station wagon. As for clothes, DC put the frump in frumpy. The hemlines in Breach date back to the Eisenhower Administration. If there was a female kneecap in this film, I missed it. And lives? FBI “spymaster” Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney) says it all: kids? husband? boyfriend? “I don’t have a cat!”1
Breach is the story of Robert Hanssen, the worst security breach in the history of that monument to obsessive-compulsive, anal-retentive denial known as the FBI. Even for an FBI agent, Hanssen was tightly wound: a devoted Catholic with six kids, a member of the secretive, right-wing Catholic Opus Dei organization2 who posted lurid sex fantasies involving his wife on the Internet, who installed a hidden video camera in his bedroom so that he could make clandestine marital sex tapes to send his buddies, an anti-Soviet expert for the bureau who supplied the Soviets with top secret information for decades, information that, among other things, led to the execution of three Soviet officers who were cooperating with the U.S.3
The Soviets paid Hanssen over a million dollars, most of which he never touched. His only real extravagance was a relationship with a stripper, maybe sexual, maybe platonic. They traveled through Asia together and Hanssen bought her a second-hand Mercedes. But the record isn’t clear if they did anything more than hold hands.
In classic bureaucratic fashion, it took the FBI several decades to catch up with Hanssen, and they brought him down in classic bureaucratic style: thousands of tedious hours of research, wire tapping, and other surveillance, resulting in an undramatic, anti-climatic arrest. Naturally, Hanssen refused to fill in any of the details, like what in the hell he thought he was doing — maybe he didn’t know — and took his life sentence like a soldier.
Hanssen kept one step ahead of the FBI for years, to the point that they were afraid he was going to retire before they could ever nail him on anything more than minor charges. To keep him active, they created a fake “plum” position for him and gave him an assistant whose sole job was to spy on him.
This is where Breach picks up the story. Chris Cooper is Hanssen, and Ryan Phillipe is “Eric O’Neill,” the kid assigned to ride herd on him. O’Neill is only told by Kate that Hanssen is a “pervert” and God knows we can’t have any of those at the Bureau. At first, O’Neill is attracted, repelled, fascinated, and irritated by this obsessive-compulsive, gun-kissing, rosary-clutching dinosaur who loves his grandkids and who wants somehow to go out and die for the Virgin Mary.4 He gets so pissed at himself for spying on the old SOB that he wants to quit the gig, which forces Kate to come clean and explain that Hanssen isn’t just a perv. So Eric sucks it up and does his job, even though it almost costs him his marriage.5
Well, that’s what happened, but we want more than the facts. We want a story, and we just don’t get one. Instead, we get ersatz suspense. Will Eric get busted hacking Hanssen’s Blackberry? (No.) Will Eric’s marriage be destroyed? (No.) Will Hanssen blow Eric’s head off? (No.) Will the feds eventually nail Hanssen? (Uh, yeah.) If the filmmakers had moved the story away from the facts, and given themselves the freedom of invention — had shown us Hanssen acting out his bizarre conflicts instead of just informing us about them, had shown him obsessing over his prostitute and delighting in his grandchildren, for example — we might not know anything about the real Hanssen, but we would have had a real story. Instead, what we have is a feature film that is more accurate than 90 percent of the documentaries you’ll see,6 but still doesn’t tell us what we want to know about Hanssen and also falls well short of the “Truth” of the imagination. Facts! You gotta have ‘em, but you’ve also gotta show ‘em who’s boss!
- And a damned good thing too! Whether you’re a novelist or a bureaucrat, or both, if you want to get things done, here’s where to start: Kill the cat! [↩]
- Not right-wing! Not secretive! Does not castrate Protestants and Jews! Membership includes right-wing, secretive columnist Robert “I am an avenging angel of God” Novak and several direct descendents of Vlad the Impaler. [↩]
- Hanssen, of course, had nothing on FBI legend J. Edgar Hoover, who spent a lifetime hunting homos but never managed to catch up with himself. Hoover made his significant other, Clyde Tolson, his second in command at the Bureau. Hoover and Tolson lived together and had lunch together at DC’s fashionable Mayflower hotel every day. They vacationed together, staying for free at guest quarters in FBI offices located conveniently near racetracks in Florida and California (Hoover loved the track). They were chauffeured to and from the track in Cadillac limousines that sat unused the rest of the year. Hoover enjoyed a fat income from a heavily promoted book, Masters of Deceit (denouncing communism, of course), written entirely by FBI agents on government time. No wonder conservatives miss the fifties! [↩]
- If only he could kill a communist! Just one! Just blow his fucking head off! If only they all hadn’t fucking died first! Those damn commies! They always win in the end! [↩]
- Because if you aren’t willing to sacrifice your marriage to dot the final “i” and cross the final “t” of a report and case file that no one will ever read, you don’t belong in DC. [↩]
- Including Al “the glaciers are melting!” Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, which I’m estimating at 80 percent “truth” and 20 percent jive. Big Al, like so many environmentalists, tries to invest Mother Nature with a moral significance that she significantly fails to possess. Mother Nature doesn’t give a damn about us. I like glaciers, salmon, and seal pups as much as the next dude, but I like human beings more. Tragedy for me is not the death of a glacier but the death of a human, from malaria, diarrhea, dysentery, poverty, and neglect, which can be addressed by greater economic growth and greater use of technology rather than less. [↩]