Ron Rosenbaum

Chris Cooper: Best film performance of the year so far...

well anyway the best I’ve seen. To understand why it’s worth comparing the portraits of counter-intelligence mandarins in The Good Shepherd and the just-released Breach.

I must admit if I’m not prejudiced, I have what the Brits call “an interest to declare” in the matter since I’ve been working furiously on a fictional screenplay (not fictional in that it doesn’t exist, fictional in that it’s not strictly factual) about counter-intelligence matters for Errol Morris, the director of (among other things) The Fog of War.

Let me begin the comparison between Matt Damon in Shepherd and Chris Cooper in Breach by saying I admire reticence in film acting when it’s done well. But there’s reticence and there’s reticence.

The reticence of Matt Damon, an actor I ordinarily admire, in The Good Shepherd> was virtually catatonic. He was supposedly playing a buttoned up WASP based mainly on James Angleton the legendary CIA counter-spy. But if that was the intent he was playing the wrong stereotype. Angleton was no pure WASP silent type. He was half-Mexican and there was a Latin and Latinate flair to his rhetoric. Damon played Angleton as if he were Rainman.

Meanwhile Chris Cooper in Breach: wow, what a treat to see someone at least play at underplaying in a film. The guy is really convincing in conveying the mixed motives, or the incoherency (something slightly different from mixed) of his motives. Someone who doesn’t even fathom his own profound split and masks his incomprehension in reticence as he methodically goes about selling the most super-sensitive U.S. spy secrets to the Soviet Union. Selling out the lives of our agents in the KGB. For cash, not conviction.

It offers us something that we rarely see in films: non transparency. Someone who is not clear even to himself. Someone who is an apparently sincere devout Catholic who becomes a traitor for…merely money? For ego? So that he “matters”. He is essentially a multiple murderer; the information that he passed to the Soviets led to at least three deaths perhaps many more. And yet he goes about his business grimly but methodically. It’s haunting, chilling. In a way he reminds one of the kidnapper/murderer in the original Dutch version ofThe Vanishing We don’t understand him because he doesn’t understand himself, and this is what touches on a nerve and makes the performance great.

So many film roles over-explain their characters. Make everything transparent. That’s why a performance that renders a character fascinating but opaque, a mystery to him and us is so rare and so riveting to watch. The most difficult espionage is our attempt to spy on ourselves. It’s not always successful, but it’s fascinating to watch. Don’t miss it.