On February 18, 2001, near his home in Virginia, Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper) was arrested by the FBI, by which he’d been employed for 25 years. How did a seemingly perfectly respectable family man, who loved his wife, went to church every day and played with his grandchildren on Sundays, end up selling secrets to the Soviets? This is what this sophomore effort from filmmaker Billy Ray attempts to discover.

Ray’s new picture shares quite a few qualities with his directorial debut, Shattered Glass. Both films are based on true stories about ethics (or the lack thereof), about the implicit trust between an institution and an individual being breached. Ray’s method is also constant, keeping things moving without showing off, exploring grand ideas while maintaining a straightforward, entertaining tone, with nicely handled thriller beats and even a good dose of deadpan humor.

“Breach” is told from the point of view of Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe), a young FBI surveillance expert who’s recruited to go work with Hanssen. He’s told to keep an eye on him, but not why. This allows him to grow close to the man and not be made out, because even the most brilliant spy can’t know that the other guy knows he’s a spy if said guy doesn’t even know it, right?

This is like a really good episode of Alias, with less sexiness (Phillippe doesn’t pose as a lingerie model to break the case or anything) but more thoughtfulness. Every other Alias (or 24 for that matter – and Dennis Haysbert shows up here) deals with a mole within the agency, but “Breach” truly attempts to understand why someone would betray his country and leak intelligence. Cooper’s character isn’t just the bad guy, he’s full of ambiguous shades. We understand why he needs to be taken down, but at the same time we feel empathy for this guy, who tried to matter to the other side when his own wouldn’t give him respect.

I was also intrigued by the way the film subverts the things that are conventionally seen as American values, like patriotism, Christianity and the gun culture. Hanssen is into all those things, and he’s also got reactionary opinions about women wearing pants (“The last thing we need is another Hillary Clinton!”), the gays, etc. He fits right into Bush’s America… Yet he’s the worst traitor of all! That says something, I think. Another interesting element is how we see that the FBI is like any other workplace, with ambition and arrogance getting in the way, employees being expected to “play the game”, office politics, turf wars and clashing egos.

In the lead, Phillippe is a bit of a blank, but that actually serves the role, which is all about hiding his thoughts and emotions. Opposite him, Cooper is amazing as always: amusingly grumpy, increasingly creepy and, ultimately, oddly affecting. In smaller parts, Haysbert and Laura Linney do good work, as does the ever lovely Caroline Dhavernas. She’s not playing much more than “the wife”, but her eyes and smile always light up the screen, and she has a couple of more dramatic late scenes with Phillippe where she does get to use her acting chops.

Between this and Shattered Glass, Billy Ray might not have blown off the roof with stylish excesses, but he’s proven to be a thoroughly sharp-minded, efficient storyteller.