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 is told it's an investigation of Hanssen's sexual habits. As the weeks pass by Hanssen, a devout Catholic, has earnt O'Neill's respect. Even Hansen has warmed to him. O'Neill's wife however resents Hanssen's intrusiveness.
The personal and professional stakes get higher as O'Neill learns from his superiors that Hanssen is a spy. The film here-on follows the struggle of whether he can help catch "the worst spy in history" red-handed and hold onto his personal life?
What sets this film apart from other of a similar genre is firstly that it is a true story, secondly that it tells us right from the beginning how it will end, and thirdly that this being one of the most important cases in the history of the FBI, it surprises that they got someone with virtually no undercover experience to do the job. Why? My guess is the only sense I could find is that somebody that has worked the system for 25 years, will no he ins and outs, so a rookie trying to deceive him would be refreshing. What strikes as refreshing to the viewer is how i remains realistic and even so the way he manages to just about hang in there, keeping his cool in the midst of this madness that really sticks out.
The growing relationship of the two principal characters, has a level of fear and paranoia, as well as a subtle layer of respect and fondness growing on both sides. O'Neill sees a side to Hanssen that the FBI were never going to see. He sees a devout catholic dedicated to his job, his wife and his faith, preaching at every opportunity he can find. When he is informed that Hanssen is a spy, he finds it hard to believe or digest, as do we. Throughout, we have our doubts about whether these are mere allegations, until some proof comes about.
The on-goings from beginning to end are engaging and keep your interest peaked, whether it be the fact that the tension is gradually handicapping O'Neill's personal life or the progression of trust and deceit between him and Hanssen. The way O'Neill is able to use Hanssen's faith against him is humorous but convincing & quite realistic.
Interestingly, most of the work here is done through simple conversation, no big action shootouts, no big explosions, but it is certainly an effective narrative. Though in the perspective of the character of O'Neill who is the central focus, it's Hanssen (Chris Cooper) who steals the show. As I said above we're not really sure of where we stand with him. He is impossible to read, yet with enough evidence put forward to let us have our suspicions. In the end we're not even really sure why he did what he did. We know it wasn't the money, we can only assume it was his ego. Considering his strong beliefs it feels that he doesn't even realise his double standards, which shows him up as flawed and thus more humane.
Overall, a very well put together tense drama, proving once again that a thriller doesn't need car chases and explosions to thrill. Simple conversation can be sufficient. With a spectacular performance by both Ryan Phillipe and Cooper, it's certainly worth a watch. The only concern being the numerous other releases at the same time.