14 November 2007


This movie is highly tense but surprisingly subdued. You know, from the outset, that Chris Cooper, ie Robert Hanssen, is going down. So it's not exactly suspenseful, but nonetheless, the movie manages to keep up an ethos of extreme discomfort throughout. It's sort of a strange film, in that it kind of lends itself to certain questions, but doesn't really do anything with them. Ultimately, then, it leaves me with the following thoughts:

1. It's kind of fascinating how hierarchical government intelligence organizations are. This movie captures that beautifully, these power plays and ways of putting people in their place. One of the first encounters between Chris Cooper and Ryan Phillippe involves them walking down a hallway together, and Phillippe repeatedly has to stop short, or pause, in order to avoid running into things. Subtle, but effective. Likewise, in Phillippe's first meeting with Laura Linney, she puts him in his place, _hard_. The thing about intelligence work is that the amount of power that you have is directly tied to how much information you have. And at times, obviously, it makes sense for the people below you NOT to have certain information, in order to do their job effectively. But geeze, you don't have to be such a jerk about it, you know?

2. There's this interesting aspect to this movie, this question of readable people are. Cooper plays Hanssen, who was apparently some kind of genius for reading people. Of course, Ryan Phillippe proves to be his downfall, which kind of makes you wonder, but all the same, there's a nice scene where he proves his mettle by playing that "tell me 4 truths and one lie about you" game and nails it, twice.
What makes him a particularly interesting case is that he not only can read people, but he himself is unreadable as well. Underneath the controlled, heavily Catholic surface, he's a total perv, apparently. One question that inevitably comes up, and is never answered, is whether the Catholicism is a fake. I don't think it is. I don't think the movie does either. But it does make you think about false consciousness, etc. How people can happily, and devoutly, hold several totally contradictory beliefs at once. And act on them, too.
Likewise, at moments, you obviously know that Phillippe is lying, but at other times, you really don't know. Is he faking it? Is he being honest, but for instrumental purposes? How does he really feel about Hanssen?
I'm still contemplating this essence versus action issue in my own speculations on identity, and I feel like scenarios like this muddy the waters, though I'm a bit hard pressed to explain how.
Anyhow, as the movie progresses, you find yourself initially believing that Cooper actually _does_ have this incredible ability, both to read people and to lead this hardcore double life. And then you start to see his weakness - which has the effect of humanizing him. You realize, in the end, that he's an extremely bright guy, but still just a guy, in the end. And you realize, or I did, that you had been thinking of him as some kind of superhuman, robot type, purely because he has these abilities. Which is kind of interesting.

There is more to say about the movie, like the subtext about "gun culture" vs "intelligence culture" in government agencies, but those were really the two main things that I found interesting about it. I think, at the end of the day, I'm just not that into straight spy-thriller movies? I dunno.

Fun trivia though, Phillippe's wife is played by Caroline Dhavernas, whom I had only ever seen before in the delightful tv show Wonderfalls, but for whom I have a decided fondness. Somebody should give her some better roles - she did this one quite well, I thought. Impressive, given what a cliche role it tends to be; the stressed out wife, angsty and frustrated about being unable to be let in on the secrets, etc etc etc. Nice German accent, too.

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