Entry from July 26, 2012

This summer I presented on behalf of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. a series of five films on the general theme of The Enemy Within. The films were shown at the Hudson Institute, 1015 15th Street N.W., Suite 600 between June 20th and July 25th. The series concluded on Wednesday, July 25th with a screening of Breach (2007) by Billy Ray, starring Chris Cooper, Ryan Phillippe, Laura Linney, Caroline Dhavernas, and Kathleen Quinlan. Before showing the film, I spoke for a few minutes about this movie as follows.

Since we last met here, a madman in Colorado has gone on a shooting rampage in a movie theatre showing Christopher Nolan’s new Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises. At first, the shootings were masked by the sound of explosions on the screen, so that those who were there must have experienced not only terror, when they realized what was happening, but also a sense of cognitive dissonance at the seeming transformation of fantasy into reality. This feeling would have been exacerbated by the fact that the lethal but fantastical violence on the screen was almost as “senseless” as that of the psycho who was blazing away at them in reality. The movie’s villain, Bane, played by Tom Hardy, at times seems to adopt a political motivation for his crimes, but it’s pretty clear that this is a pretext. He just likes killing people and is destroying Gotham City for the sake of it. Like Heath Ledger’s Joker in Mr Nolan’s previous Batman film, whom the Colorado shooter appears to have thought he was emulating, Bane “just wants to watch the world burn.” Thus, also like the Joker, he kills his own evil henchmen with as much alacrity as he does the innocent citizens of Gotham, which might make you wonder how he manages to command their loyalty to the extent that, apparently, he does.

Such questions the movie — it’s just a movie, after all — does not encourage us to ask. It does encourage us to ask others, however, such as what really motivates Bane’s malevolence. For this purpose an entire back story, though a tedious and not a very intelligible one, is invented to explain his connection to the movie’s, and the Batman franchise’s, forces of darkness in the League of Shadows. In the same way, in the wake of the shootings in Colorado, the media leapt, as the media always do leap when such things happen, to provide explanations, the more the better, of the shooter’s supposed motivations. And, as always, I thought that the only explanation needed was the very simple and obvious one sitting right under their noses. It was that self-same speculation about his motivations by the media, since these had all-too predictably turned him, for a few days at least, into the kind of celebrity he and others like him crave to be. For a time he must have felt like the most important person in the world, since everyone in it seemed to be talking about him and wondering what made him tick.

In tonight’s movie, Breach of 2007, directed by Billy Ray and written by him together with Adam Mazer and William Rotko, there is a moment near the end when the hero, Eric O’Neill (played by Ryan Phillippe) tries a bit of reverse psychology by confronting Robert Hanssen, his FBI superior and the man he is trying to expose as a Russian agent, over his well-merited lack of trust in himself. He had been trying to make excuses to his wife, O’Neill tells Hanssen, who is played by Chris Cooper, for the latter’s ill treatment of subordinates. “I had all these answers for her,” he says. ‘He’s misunderstood’; ‘he’s trying to fix the Bureau and no one will listen’; ‘he was born in the wrong century’; ‘his father’s a jerk.’ I got a whole list. But you know something, Sir? At the end of the day it’s all crap. You are who you are. The ‘why’ doesn’t mean a thing, does it?” Later, after Hanssen is apprehended trying to pass secrets to the Russians, he tries out an explanation for his own treachery on his FBI captors — an explanation we’ll come back to in a moment — before lapsing into the words of his subordinate. “The ‘why’ doesn”t mean a thing, does it?”

When he — and we — had heard these words for the first time, Hanssen had seemed not to be listening, to have heard instead only O’Neill’s blow to his pride in saying he doesn’t matter enough for the Bureau to be investigating him. Though not true, the sting of the insult must make it sound like truth, for he replies: “I matter plenty!” — which, of course, suggests another explanation: vanity. This is not inconsistent with the explanation which I mentioned a moment ago, that he offers to his fellow FBI agents as they are taking him into custody, namely “human ego.” Hanssen says to them, “Can you imagine, sitting in a room with a bunch of your colleagues, everybody trying to guess the identity of a mole and all the while, it’s you they’re after, you they’re looking for? That must be very satisfying, wouldn’t you think?” It is, as it is meant to be, a tantalizing thought. He holds out to us the satisfaction we seek, just as the media seek the satisfaction of an explanation every time some lunatic goes on a rampage. Our intellectual vanity is piqued at the thought of the understanding he offers us, namely, his intellectual vanity as the motivation for his betrayal.

But then he takes that explanation away from us again. “The ‘why’ doesn’t mean a thing, does it?” he says, repeating O’Neill’s words. In doing so, Hanssen at once manages to preserve his own mystery — which, after his apprehension, is all he has left — and to deliver a rebuke to the media’s fascination with the psychology of evil-doers which, some have speculated, led him in a way to acquiesce in his own capture, since the glory of having deceived everyone for as long as he did would have been worthless if no one had known about it or speculated about why he did it. Such speculation about what the director calls “the enormous interior life of this contradictory character” could not but have had the effect of making us take our eyes off the enormity of the deed itself, just as I think it does in the case of the crazed young man in Colorado who must have been willing to brave the shame of his wicked act for the sake of the celebrity he knew he could rely on its winning for him. Perhaps I am being over-subtle. There have always been traitors, but there hasn’t always been the media culture of today which has so largely lost the ability to discriminate between heroes and traitors, between fascinating but fantastical super-villains and the pathetic real-life characters who seek, sometimes, to emulate them.

Part of my own motivation in putting together this film series over the past five weeks has been to suggest that maybe the whole matter of the enemy within as we understand it today is different from what it used to be, and largely because of that media culture — which is also, of course, the celebrity culture. You only have to look at such contemporary celebrities as Julian Assange or, now, Bradley Manning to have this thought. Mr Assange’s rationale for publishing the nation’s secrets is no more persuasive to me than Bane’s in letting all the Gotham City convicts out of prison. Neither man really wants to create or accomplish anything by his action. A world of total transparency is far less imaginable even than the fantastical machines that Bane and Batman vie for the control of. Neither Wikileaks nor the League of Shadows nor the would-be Joker of the multiplex really want anything but to register their protest against the world as they find it, which they, in common with their communist forbears, identify with what they call “the system.” And the actual system operated by the media is in love with those who buck the system.

Certainly, in Breach and maybe in real life too, the only thing Robert Hanssen is passionate about, apart from his Catholic faith, is the system, and, as the real-life Eric O’Neill eagerly informs us, he doesn’t like it either. He tells O’Neill to steal a painting from another office that he wants for his and to take a couple of the computers that are just lying around without filling in any requisition forms. “Req. forms are for bureaucrats,” he says. He also tells O’Neill that it is only the guys who are good at bureaucratic politics who are successful at the bureau and he is furious — or at least he professes to be — that the FBI’s bureaucratic culture prevents it from mounting an effective counter-intelligence operation. When he is caught, as a result of the counter-intelligence operation it does mount, he says to the arresting agents, “Maybe now you’ll listen.” Later, he offers this — the idea that he was just exposing the Bureau’s too-lax security — as yet another explanation for what he has done before shutting the door on all explanations by saying, “The ‘why’ doesn’t mean a thing, does it?”

One of the reasons why this is the key line for understanding the movie is that it is itself an explanation — an explanation of why it’s not the Robert Hanssen story. The reason is that we don’t know the Robert Hanssen story. Nobody knows it, possibly not even Robert Hanssen himself, who is now serving a life sentence in the maximum security prison in Florence, Colorado. Billy Ray and company thus make a virtue of necessity in closing down speculation about his motivation, though at the cost of doing two things instead that I would have expected to ruin the movie. One is that, unable to make the Robert Hanssen story, he instead makes the Eric O’Neill story. You can understand why he did it. No one knew about Mr O’Neill’s part in cracking the case for a couple of years afterwards, as the FBI wouldn’t allow him to speak publicly about it. When he could tell his story, instead of writing a book, he went straight to Hollywood and had a sceenplay written. So a lot of what we see in the movie, though partially fictionalized, was actually news at the time it came out.

But that didn’t do anything to make Eric O’Neill’s story bigger or more important than Robert Hanssen’s, and the triviality of the former is underlined by the dénouement in which an idealistic young man, having been subjected to so much pressure, especially in his relationship with his wife, Juliana, played by Caroline Dhavernas, decides that a career serving his country with the FBI is just too hard for him. His domestic troubles can’t help looking pretty trivial next to the grand theme of loyalty and betrayal. And the same is true of the other bad thing that the movie does, which is that, insofar as it is Hanssen’s story, it is about his hypocrisy rather than his treachery — hypocrisy, that is, in being a devout Catholic who gets up to some kinky sex activities and who is hard on his subordinates, not to mention betraying his country. Thus, having avoided the great media fetish for explanation on the one hand, the movie can’t resist the other great media fetish, for hypocrisy, on the other.

This was probably inevitable, however, and we should be grateful that having placed so much stress on Hanssen’s apparently sincere Catholicism — the movie begins with a scene of him alone in a church, praying the Rosary — Mr Ray should have been as reticent as he is about the sex part. But it still sort of makes us take our eyes off what was important about the Hanssen case. Except that it doesn’t, quite. For what I think saves the movie in spite of its flaws is its realism, its firm anchor in the mundanities of everyday life, which comes across at least as strikingly as its opposite in the other movies we have seen in the series. Though not merely fantasy, as Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies are, these have all been, in one way or another, verging on the fantastical, from the expressionistic touches of The Third Man to the outlandish tales of alien invasion in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, brainwashing in Manchurian Candidate and monstrous wickedness at the heart of our own government in Three Days of the Condor.

Now we have left all that behind. Unlike the shadowy but fictional Attwood and Wicks in Condor or the evil Dr. Yen Lo in Manchurian Candidate, Hanssen is not a monster, though he probably did even worse things than they did — and in real life, not some paranoid fantasy. Instead, he is allowed to come across as an ordinary and even, in some ways, an admirable man, and for all his quirks recognizably like ourselves. That makes him, in my view, far more shocking than the lurid, Joker- or Bane-like villains that Hollywood prefers and that we have grown jaded by seeing brought forth to frighten the kiddies with a few too many times. Hannah Arendt’s now-famous “banality of evil” is more interesting in its banality than its evil. The word “banal” and, hence, “banality,” by the way, comes from the name of a communal mill, belonging to a feudal lord, to which all his vassals or tenants were required to bring their grain to be ground. Like commonplace and community, the word still carries with it something of this sense of what is shared with others and thus it is the opposite of what most people mean by evil. Hannah Arendt’s oxymoron is therefore another way of saying “the enemy within.”

It also reminds us that within is almost literally an unthinkable place for an enemy to be, even in an organization like the FBI devoted to hunting down enemies within, which is why it took so long to catch Robert Hanssen. Maybe it is also why Hanssen — but no. I will resist the temptation to speculate further, just as Billy Ray does in Breach. He’s right to say that the ‘why’ doesn’t matter when it comes to Hanssen’s motivation. But there’s another way in which ‘why’ not only does matter but is a question much more easily answered. That’s the ‘why’ as in why these tales of treachery are so terrifying, even when the treachery itself is as small a part of them as it is in Breach. As in all the previous films in the series, it is precisely the within-ness of the enemy that is played up as its most scary quality. When you think about it, everything we fear most, from cancer to crime, is an enemy within, and it is most often within something or somebody which we instinctively feel ought to be trusted to exclude enemies. Nowadays, partly as a result of movies like these, we no longer have that trust in our governmental institutions or, increasingly, in the people we meet in everyday life — sitting next to us, say, in a movie theatre.

Yet we still hang on to an idea of the good without which evil, too, would lose any meaning, as I think it does in the Batman movies and as it sometimes threatens to do in real life. What the movie does right is to put Hanssen’s evil in that context of the good in order to make us understand not why it happens but why it’s evil. What we see of him in his relations with family and colleagues plays off what Eric O’Neill experiences with his wife and father, played by Bruce Davison, and Agent Burroughs, played by Laura Linney. O’Neill’s very shallow and comparatively uninteresting character arc and even his opting in the end for the relatively quiet life of a Washington lawyer, helps to create a portrait of ordinariness that is largely missing from the other movies in the series except, very briefly, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the hallucination of the New Jersey Garden Club in Manchurian Candidate. Making real life into a hallucination in that movie was part of the means by which it sought to persuade us that its own hallucinations of fantastical foreign and domestic evils were real life.

And so, I think, we come back in the end to the question with which I began this series: the one about E.M. Forster’s claim that if he had to choose between betraying his country and betraying his friend, he hoped he would have the guts to betray his country. By stressing as much as it does the sense of the banal, the ordinary, the communal, which is what Hanssen’s treachery — like all enemies within — ultimately threatens, Breach may persuade us in the end that betraying one’s country is betraying one’s friends. The ties that bind us as a nation and a polity are not fundamentally different or separate from those that bind us to family or community. There once was a time, before 1938 when Forster wrote the essay, “What I Believe,” in which those words appear, when people understood this instinctively. The new disjunction he exposes between the two is, I think, part of the legacy of Marxist communism, which taught that all such ties of loyalty were abolished by its demand of loyalty to the Revolution and to “History.” The Forster quotation is just one example of how, ever since, people have wanted both to embrace their illusory liberation from communal ties and to cling to them, or some private version of them, at the same time. Breach — unexpectedly but to its very great credit — doesn’t allow us to get away with that.

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