Following up Shattered Glass with Breach, director Billy Ray has made a good start on a pet theme, the human, or peculiarly American, proclivity for deceit. The first, you will recall, told the factual story of the fabricating journalist, Stephen Glass, of The New Republic. The second, coming to town on Friday, tells the factual story of the dissembling FBI double agent, Robert Hanssen, the bureau's self-styled expert on the Soviets and secret bedfellow of them, the architect of "the worst breach in the history of U.S. intelligence," in the intemperate words of the colleague commissioned to seal the breach. The factuality cuts two ways. It curbs the extravagances of the James Bond branch of espionage capers, but it also curbs the excitement, the thrills. With the traitor's arrest a foregone conclusion (a preludial clip of John Ashcroft on television provides reassurance rather than, more usually for a member of the Bush administration, an invitation to hiss), the film becomes more a character study than a cloak-and-dagger operation; and because of the nature of the character, it devolves into an accumulation of oddities and crotchets, inescapably more mirthful than suspenseful. We can never really understand the man, but we can revel in him.
Chris Cooper, adding another prominent portrait to his impressive gallery, a showpiece to outshine even those of Adaptation, Capote, Seabiscuit, Lone Star, captures fully the nondescriptness and anonymity that John le Carré treasures in a spy; and the churchy suit and haircut, to go along with the prissily pursed lips and piercing beady eyes, are no mere disguise. A devout and ostentatious Catholic (lapsed Lutheran), a vigilant paranoid, a humorless megalomaniac, he is a man brimming with opinions: "I disapprove of women in pantsuits.... The world doesn't need another Hillary Clinton." (The actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, a video favorite of his, is something else again: "She's very appealing.") The sounding board, and surreptitious brain-picker, for these opinions is a young agent in training, Jesuit-schooled, assigned to the suspected turncoat as a personal assistant, with the understanding at first that he is sniffing out nothing worse than sexual deviancy. That turns out to be true, too, although apart from a covert bedroom video of himself and his wife, peddled through the mail, Hanssen's deviancy is played down. (Much farther down, if memory serves, than in the 2002 TV miniseries on the same subject, Master Spy: The Robert Hanssen Story, with the transparent William Hurt in the lead role, and a hack screenplay by no one less than Norman Mailer.) Ryan Phillippe as the FBI fledgling is tightly clamped, and appropriately so; and Laura Linney, as his manipulative superior, effectively banishes any personal warmth. Rooting interest is therefore minimal, snooping interest substantial.
The Lives of Others, the German nominee for Best Foreign Film, wisely ushered into town before it predictably becomes an Oscar loser, takes us back to the bad old days of the Berlin Wall and the Big Brother tactics of the GDR secret police, the Stasi. The case in point: a Party pooh-bah has the hots for a celebrated stage actress and, to clear the way, orders some dirt dug up on her playwright boyfriend, an apparently loyal socialist of spotless reputation despite his openly subversive friends and despite, too, his openly snooty manner. Ulrich Tukur, so memorable as the conscience-stricken Nazi of Amen, is good again in the less complex and less sympathetic role of the bureaucratic brownnoser who heads up the investigation. But the better role and better performance belong to another Ulrich, last name Mühe, coincidentally the conscienceless Doctor Mengele of Amen, now playing the relentless bullet-headed interrogator charged to carry out the dirty work, taking it all in (including the indiscretions of the higher-ups), giving nothing away, keeping his opinions to himself, eventually keeping his findings to himself as well, crawling a long way out on a limb. Martina Gedeck and Sebastian Koch as actress and playwright have some complexity, too, to complement and compromise their outward artiness. Watching it all unfold is more than passably interesting, if not particularly to look at (nauseously green), and even though the run-on epilogue is rather cumbersome. The new-name filmmaker bears a name befitting the monocle-brandishing antagonist in a Viennese operetta, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.
Breaking and Entering, the latest Anthony Minghella film, boasts a cast assembled from past Anthony Minghella films, Jude Law from Cold Mountain and The Talented Mr.Ripley, Ray Winstone from Cold Mountain only, Juliette Binoche from The English Patient, Juliet Stevenson from Truly Madly Deeply, plus new recruits Robin Wright Penn and, in an entertaining turn as an immigrant streetwalker, Vera Farmiga, all of whom are cosseted in a closeup-happy style and flattered in nice, soft, gentle lighting (by Benoît Delhomme). The plot centers around an affluent but alienated and abstracted urban developer, married, with an autistic, gymnastic child, and headquartered in an insufficiently gentrified section of Kings Cross, where his swanky offices are repeatedly burgled. (The break-in technique, which points a misleading finger at an inside job, is quite an eye-opener.) When, however, he independently tracks down the culprit, he finds himself willing to overlook the crime in order to get a closer look at the criminal's mother, a beautiful sad-eyed war widow from Sarajevo. In the hands of the late author of The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith, this situation would doubtless have generated strong suspense and sticky psychology. In the hands of Anthony Minghella, who wrote the screenplay himself, it mainly generates stylish angst.
The latest word on Miss Potter (reviewed in these pages two weeks ago when it was initially set to open) is that it has now been put off until March, to get clear of the jostling of Oscar contenders. Translation: the schemers at the Weinstein Company had hoped Miss Potter would itself be an Oscar contender and when it wasn't, they didn't know what to do with it.