I really liked Billy Ray's first feature, the somewhat underrated Shattered Glass, a dramatization of the downfall of pathologically lying New Republic reporter Stephen Glass. Breach is the perfect follow-up: Like Shattered Glass, it explores a recent American scandal involving a corrupt, deluded, and possibly insane individual placed in a high position of trust, who exploited that position to his own inscrutably evil ends. But Glass's subject matter seems slight compared to Breach's, which concerns FBI computer expert Robert Hanssen, who for years was selling highly confidential government secrets to Russian spies until his arrest in early 2001.

As Hanssen, the redoubtable Chris Cooper puts in what is perhaps his very best work. His Hanssen is eccentric, slippery, creepy, and infinitely complicated. (The real-life Hanssen, a religious zealot and "sexual deviant" whose arrest is revealed at the very beginning of Breach, has remained mum about his traitorous motivations, so Ray and screenwriters Adam Mazer and William Rotko wisely don't presume to tell us what they were.) As the aspiring FBI agent who winds up taking him down, Ryan Phillippe is a reliable straight man, if not particularly interesting. The always-good Laura Linney fares better as Phillippe's taskmaster in the shadows.

Ray makes good use of wintery Washington DC exteriors and his story is as gripping as any thriller, even when we know from the start that it won't end in a hail of gunfire or piles of bodies. Breach is as taut as its title, a smart, troubling, no-nonsense picture about a seriously disturbed individual who lurked in the very heart of American security. It may already be one of the best films of 2007.