The back story of a spy tale

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Spotlight on: Billy Ray

February 16, 2007|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

WASHINGTON -- Writer-director Billy Ray criticized journalism in Shattered Glass, his riveting chronicle of how Stephen Glass became a top byline at The New Republic by fabricating one far-out feature after another. Now Ray gets to be a reporter with Breach.

It's the never-before-told story of how a 26-year-old special surveillance operative named Eric O'Neill snared Robert Hanssen, the most notorious spy in FBI history.

"I started out as a journalism wannabe," Ray admitted in a Washington hotel a month before the opening of his movie. He went to Northwestern University to study journalism, but left after his freshman year to return to his hometown of Encino, Calif., and attend UCLA film school. He never lost his love for the "journalistic approach to storytelling" -- and the O'Neill-Hanssen saga seemed ripe for the approach.

You won't find O'Neill in the index of any book on Hanssen. In a separate interview in Washington, O'Neill explains, "I was classified, and I wasn't declassified until I got permission from the FBI to tell my story" roughly a year after Hanssen's arrest on Feb. 18, 2001. By the time O'Neill was able to do his own book, "the market was flooded." But his brother David thought the story of how O'Neill became Hanssen's assistant just to catch him was too good to keep in a drawer. So David O'Neill called his friend William Rotko, who with his screenwriting partner Adam Mazer wrote a script and sold it to producers Bobby Newmyer and Scott Strauss.

Newmyer saw Shattered Glass and thought Ray was the perfect guy to rewrite the script and direct it. But Ray balked because he felt that what Rotko and Mazer had written was too much of a "procedural piece" for his taste. "For me," says Ray, "what the movie was always about is how our mentors can teach us even as they're failing us. I wanted to force Eric O'Neill to re-evaluate how he feels about his job, his family and his religion through the experience of being stuck in a room with Robert Hanssen."

A semi-lapsed Catholic newlywed trying to rise in a highly competitive agency with a wife from the former East Germany, O'Neill, in Ray's view, would have been vulnerable to the blunt brilliance and certitude of Hanssen, a quarter-century veteran with a strong marriage and a devotion to the Catholic sect Opus Dei.

In the initial script, "Eric was told from the beginning who Hanssen was and what he was accused of." But to Ray, "that didn't leave any room for a relationship to grow" between the two men. So in his version, the FBI misleads O'Neill into thinking he's investigating Hanssen's sexual kinks -- and O'Neill grows to think it's Whitewater all over again, except he's the guy seeking the stained dress. This change allowed Ray to bring out the central paradox of the material: "Lying in the pursuit of truth."

O'Neill says that while altering the context of his experience, Ray stayed remarkably true to its core. O'Neill's marriage was under pressure, and he did give Hanssen the benefit of the doubt, even though he knew that a Russian source had sold the FBI a devastating file on him. "I found out as we were going along that [Hanssen] was a tough guy to work for, and he could be a jerk sometimes," says O'Neill. "I knew that he was a little bit of a pervert, and he could make you feel uncomfortable. But I'd been in enough undercover operations to realize you [can] really destroy someone's life."

The FBI's entrapment strategy was to create an "Information Assurance" section, put Hanssen in charge and make O'Neill his right-hand man. "They needed me," he says, "to get into his head." Not only was O'Neill Catholic, but he was the same age as one of Hanssen's sons, and, like that son, was a law student. (O'Neill then attended George Washington University Law School at night, a fact not in the movie; after the case, he left the FBI to practice law in Washington.) O'Neill's skill at "prodding Hanssen's ego" while calling him "Boss" or "Sir," just like in the movie, "reinforced the role [Hanssen] liked to be in as mentor and teacher. When I played up to that he loved to talk. At the beginning he wouldn't say a word and suddenly he opened up and we couldn't shut him up."

In Ray's view, Hanssen cracked under the pressures of knowing he was an outsider when it came to the FBI's corporate culture, which still valued guns over computer wizardry or intelligence-gathering, and also feeling "he had married out of his league" and didn't want to fall out of that league. Ray thinks Hanssen felt he needed the money he got from the Russians both to pay for platinum educations for his kids and to tithe for Opus Dei in the manner his wife, Bonnie, expected. If he'd come up short, says Ray, "He would have thought of himself as the loser his father always told him he was: the other key component of who this guy Hanssen is."

During the filming of Shattered Glass, Ray said he saw Stephen Glass' comeuppance as "the story of the least popular kid in high school" (New Republic editor Charles Lane) bringing down "the most popular kid in high school" (Glass, a whiz kid cum class clown).

Ray has wrung a variation on that in Breach, "except in this case I'm telling the story from the point of view of the popular kid. To do what Hanssen did requires such rage and such contempt not only for people in his immediate circle but for the organization of which he was a part and for his country. Yet if you ask Robert Hanssen why he'd done what he'd done, I'm sure he'd tell you he was a patriot and he had done it to expose our vulnerability. In his mug shot he used his fingers to cover the characters 65A on his name plate, which mean espionage. He didn't want to be known as a spy. Even in his mug shot he was in total denial about what he had done."

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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