For writer/director Billy Ray, truth is both stranger, and stronger, than fiction.

Breach, a riveting true-life thriller about the young FBI specialist who got the goods on the veteran agent selling secrets to Moscow, keeps you on the edge of your seat and bites your nails for you, too.

In one way, Breach is a reversal of Ray's Shattered Glass. That one was the real-life story of a charming young reporter who invents stories until his editor ferrets out the truth. This time, the young man (Ryan Phillippe as 27-year-old FBI specialist Eric O'Neill) is the ferret exposing his mentor (Chris Cooper as FBI agent Robert Hanssen) as the rat.

What's the same, though, is the youth's reflexive longing to relate to his elder as a mentor and the man's desire to father the apprentice assigned to be his "aide." Each man's human need for connection conflicts with his default suspicion and makes for one of the most intense games of psychological poker ever filmed.

Cooper, an actor of many dimensions, and Phillippe, who shows previously unexplored depths, make the most of their performances in this thriller where the explosions are all internal and the more powerfully felt for it.

Let it be stressed, though, that this is a quiet, meticulously plotted chamber piece, not the booming, lightning-paced orchestral affair we know as the contemporary action film in the Age of Ludlum. Hanssen was an enemy of the state, his treachery called "the worst intelligence disaster in U.S. history," but this is no Enemy of the State.

In almost every scene, we see the two men regard each other as colleagues wearing work faces and as professional spies sneaking peeks behind the other's mask. It is a foregone conclusion that the earnest, green newbie will outmaneuver the devious, oak-aged master spy. What keeps us breathless is how.

Ray, who frames this pair in fluorescent-lit bureau offices, sharing a pew at Mass, and stuck in traffic jams that not even Jason Bourne could crash his way out of, does how very well.

We palpably feel the novice sweating that the object in his sights, that stealthy old gator, will turn around and bite his head off.

We experience the veteran's escalating paranoia that his altar boy of an aide might not be as innocent-seeming as he comes off.

And in the tightly wound performance of Laura Linney, as O'Neill's handler, we understand the bureau vibe, a mountain of mission-driven tension with a speck of comic relief. It's a place where professional partnerships routinely preempt personal partnerships. Eric can't share with his wife his suspicions about Hanssen, whose relationship with O'Neill evolves from that of a distant, bullying boss to the devout Catholic who wants to spiritually and professionally adopt Eric.

But so much for the how. It's the why that is missing from Ray's unusually intelligent movie, which feels unfinished.

Breach *** (out of four stars)

Produced by Scott Kroopf, Robert F. Newmyer and Scott Strauss, directed by Billy Ray, written by Adam Mazer, William Rotko and Billy Ray, photography by Tak Fujimoto, music by Mychael Danna, distributed by Universal Pictures.

Running time: 1 hour, 50 mins.

Robert Hanssen. . . Chris Cooper

Eric O'Neill. . . Ryan Phillippe

Kate Burroughs. . . Laura Linney

Rich Garces. . . Gary Cole

Bonnie Hanssen. . . Kathleen Quinlan

Parent's guide: PG-13 (mature themes, suspense, profanity, sexual content)

Playing at: area theaters

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Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com.