More character study than suspense thriller, Billy Ray’s follow-up effort to his brilliant 2004 drama “Shattered Glass” is a better constructed, albeit less engaging look at another elaborate fraud of recent times – this time in the world of intelligence. Its goal isn’t to keep us on the edge of our seats but rather to explore the mind of one of the most enigmatic moles in the history of intelligence.
He partially succeeds, thanks mostly due to a star turn by Chris Cooper. Cooper plays Robert Hanssen, a deeply religious and somewhat bitter veteran agent of the FBI with a strong record. Yet he’s also been passing on secrets and exposing other spies to foreign powers for reasons unknown.
That reasoning is never convincingly explained by film’s end, but that doesn’t stop Cooper from giving us a true star turn. Considering the character’s ultimately hypocritical nature and disturbing religious zealotry, it’s actually surprising how much you come to understand where he’s coming from in terms of his frustration with the inadequacies of others, disgust over the politics of the FBI, and genuine affection for his country and his family.
With such a strong player in the mix, much of the others on the field sadly fall in his shadow. Phillippe has grown a lot and displays far more acting chops than he did in other paranoia thrillers like “Anti-Trust”, yet he remains a somewhat bland leading man which makes his plight not that particularly compelling. Linney can make reading the phone book into something poetic, a required skill in this case as she’s stuck with a bland character whose sole purpose is to spout exposition.
Almost jarring is the fact that Ray’s film completely deglamorises the FBI as we’ve come to know it thanks to TV and film. There’s no flashy visuals or trick editing, no elaborate conspiracies or ubiquitous cameos – the style perfectly conveys that FBI agents are essentially public servants working in bland cubicles and spending most of the day fact checking.
In fact Ray has almost done too good a job at demystifying this world, causing the already simple story to drag along with only the odd moment of suspense or strong acting to carry us along. In muting the various actions of the story, it robs the film of any visible consequences or real tangible threat – which softens what could’ve been a gripping suspense tale into something more pedestrian.
By the time a gun comes out, it’s not only too late but seems somewhat out of place. Still, in spite of its unabashedly low-key approach itis never less than interesting drama and at times quite compelling. Stuck in the middle of one of the worst months of the year for film, this is a diamond in the rough and definitely worth seeking out.