When I first saw the preview for this movie, I wasn’t sure how I felt. Having known much of this story before seeing the movie, I was wary of how they were going to present it. I was afraid they were going to trivialize one of the worst cases of espionage and treason and that the audience wasn’t going to take anything away from the film. Hollywood is very good at trivializing details, as the details of stories like this tend to be the opposite of exciting.
The movie focuses on the final two months of the investigation of Robert Hanssen, a senior FBI agent who was suspected of selling secrets to the Russians. Ryan Phillippe plays a young agent, Eric O’Neill, who is assigned as Hanssen’s clerk in order to spy on him and gather evidence. Much of the film plays out as a constant struggle for O’Neill; whether it’s trying to gain Hanssen’s trust, slowly gleaning information from the lead investigating agent, Kate Burroughs, or constantly consoling a wife who he is slowly alienating. This constant struggle made the film harder to watch because it slowly made the viewer more uncomfortable as time passed. O’Neill never seemed to be making any progress and the audience never got to learn anything about what Hanssen had done in the past.
Since we already knew that the investigation was a success, the film had to rely on creating drama between Hanssen and O’Neill. They focused so much on Hanssen’s weird little traits (child pornography and extreme religious devotion, among others) that they left very little time to divulge anything about the espionage, which was the whole friggin’ point. The guy sold secrets for nearly three decades and the only focus it gets is the occasional scene where Burroughs has to reconvince O’Neill how important it is to catch Hanssen. Hollywood also seemed to think it was really important to show us the marital strife of the O’Neills, thus confirming my fear that they were indeed trivializing the whole espionage thing.
Overall, this film got mostly good reviews, with the majority of them saying it was a great thriller. Really, a great thriller? I don’t remember ever being on the edge of my seat or biting my nails in anticipation. Chris Cooper (Hanssen) and Phillippe turned in good performances, but there’s not much more I can say about this film. Even the end, which should have been the best part of the film, was poorly done. I believe that the vast majority of the audience had one question on their mind: why did he do it? Since they glossed over that during the movie, the car ride back to FBI headquarters with a captured Hanssen was the only chance for us to get that answer. And what was the answer? I’m not sure, since all he did was mumble something about Aldrich Aimes (a traitor in the CIA) and complain about the current state of FBI security. It was almost as if the writers were trying to make Hanssen seem sympathetic and that the FBI was really to blame for his actions.
The writers missed the truly interesting part of this story, which was not the capture of Hanssen. It was actually when they first learned of a mole in the FBI and – irony of ironies – put Hanssen in charge of the investigation to catch the traitor, who was actually himself. Agent Burroughs even teases us with this when she informs O’Neill of it, but I think it would have been great to explore this facet of the investigation, which would have shown us the true character and ego of Hanssen. This would have been all the answer we needed for why he did what he did, instead of some lame sermon in the back of a Suburban. Maybe this is just proof that Hollywood should leave stories like to this to real authors who actual research things before they write about them.
Rating: If you knew absolutely nothing about this case, this movie is worth about two dollars to you. For everyone else, you got robbed.