Every office has its secrets, but covert skulduggery becomes an issue of national security in the corridors of the FBI headquarters. Based on a notorious real-life case, this impressively grown-up blend of spy-movie suspense and probing character study begins with keen-as-mustard junior agent Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe) getting the unlovely task of spying on his new boss, veteran Russian intelligence expert Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper), to assess suspicions that he’s a sex pervert. As it turns out, Hanssen the devout Catholic has indeed been sharing videos of his kinky activities in the marital bed, but that’s not the least of the man’s contradictions: a loyal career officer, often abrasively critical of lax security standards, he’s also in the illicit pay of the Russians.
Phillippe delivers one of his more substantial performances as the blue-eyed boy terrified he’s going to screw up his first major assignment, yet Cooper simply owns this movie, reptilian and unknowable in a performance that’s an odds-on bet for Oscar attention. He’s well served too, by writer director Billy Ray, who looks as though he’s been studying his Jean-Pierre Melville, methodically taking us through the agency’s everyday routine to build nerve-shredding tension later on when the narrowest time window becomes available to search Hanssen’s office. As a thriller, a seemingly rather plain movie becomes gripping almost by stealth, yet there are broader issues at stake too, for the security services’ inability to ‘read’ a given individual not only dissolves the certainties essential for their work, it also challenges our own assumptions (on celluloid and in life) of the integrity of human character. Tense, fascinating, worthwhile.