From the opening frame, Breach is all business. It's a thriller as brisk, economical and keenly honed as its central character. Robert Hanssen is a buttoned-down professional, a pious Catholic, devoted family man and one of the most infamous espionage traitors in U.S. history. Hanssen spent 25 years as one of the FBI's leading Soviet analysts, and for most of those years he was selling vital secrets to the very enemy he was monitoring.

Chris Cooper absolutely shreds the screen as Hanssen, completing the leap from fascinating character player to kick-ass leading man, turning in a riveting and accomplished performance that's impossible to turn away from. Cooper burrows deep into the slippery skin of a brilliant, conflicted man who was as twisted as he was frighteningly calculated, and nails it superbly. His scene-stealing dominance is remarkable given the caliber of support from such an impeccable cast, including Laura Linney, Gary Cole and Dennis Haysbert.

Much like Ethan Hawke did with Denzel in Training Day, Ryan Phillipe more than holds his own opposite Cooper, as Eric O'Neill, the ambitious but green operative who serves as point man on the bureau's massive effort to snare Hanssen. Embedded as personal assistant, he's first charged with keeping tabs on his boss's kinky bedroom antics, Internet porn obsession and exhibitionism. At first O'Neill can't really connect Hanssen's inner-freak with the loving husband and strict but highly proficient agent, much less his more sinister agenda.

From there the film runs the old cat-and-mouse treadmill, but pulls off the neat trick of maintaining white-knuckle suspense even as we know its final destination. Credit goes to the snare-drum taut direction of Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) and to a lucid, fact-based script that fills in the emotional puzzle without descending into bathos.

The standard-issue spy movie themes of trust, deception, duty and paranoia get a workout here, but in a way that never seems forced or overdramatic, and Ray keeps the picture on an even keel. In fact the cloak-and-dagger stuff works so well, and the acting is so vivid, that the films' few details left unanswered become frustrating. We never learn how he got away with such subterfuge all those years, but a mixture of lingering bitterness, ego, delusion and professional jealousy might explain the why, not that it changes the facts one bit.

Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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