A 'breach' between history and Hollywood

The new film "Breach," starring Chris Cooper and Ryan Phillippe, depicts the true story of the FBI's most notorious mole – as seen through the lens of Hollywood, of course (see movie review). Anytime moviemakers stand in as history teachers – bearing the familiar disclaimer, "inspired by true events" – their tales often raise the question, "did it really happen like that?" After all, movies often favor drama over, well, facts.

But this new spy vs. spy flick, about a young agent who helped bring down Robert Hanssen, the most famous spy in American history, gets high marks from the young man behind the headlines.

"It's very true to the spirit of events," says Eric O'Neill, comfortably ensconced in a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. Now a lawyer with a quick smile and bright brown eyes, he says he left the FBI because "that life is too stressful," particularly on a marriage.

The story came to Hollywood after his brother David, an actor and writer, encouraged Mr. O'Neill to share his tale, even introducing him to the film's screenwriters, Adam Mazer and William Rotko. With permission from his former employer, O'Neill consulted on, and is now helping to promote, the film about the month and a half of near daily terror he spent undercover as Hanssen's assistant.

However, says the former junior spy who, despite his serious gray business suit, could still pass as for a college student, the big-screen version does take dramatic liberties. Perhaps the most important may seem small to outsiders, he says. It took him a long time to actually gain Mr. Hanssen's confidence and even longer to converse freely with him. Much of the most damaging evidence he gathered emerged from those conversations. In contrast, in the film, Ryan Phillippe (as O'Neill) strides into Hanssen's office and begins a friendly banter almost immediately. More dramatically, at one point in the film the longtime spy takes the greenhorn agent deep into snowy woods and brandishes a gun at him. When Hanssen shoots the weapon, barely missing his apprentice, there is little chance the audience will miss the message: the older man is a deadly threat to his protégé.

"That never really happened," admits O'Neill. But the intimidation behind it took place all the time, he says. Hanssen was adept with firearms, but he was equally skilled at mind games, says the lawyer. "He would do things like put the guns on the table in front of him while he was talking to me. He wouldn't say anything about them, but he would touch them while we were talking and I got the message loud and clear," says O'Neill, with a laugh that still bears an edge of nervousness. "He could hurt me anytime he chose."

The raw power of the truth is exactly what attracted director Billy Ray to O'Neill's tale.

"I can't imagine coming up with a better character on my own," he says. "How would you create someone more compelling, more strange, more idiosyncratic than Robert Hanssen?" he asks. Certain changes were made for dramatic purposes, none more so than the choice to focus on one young recruit who is brought in during what turns out to be the endgame of the pursuit. Although hundreds of agents helped track Hanssen over the years, "We told the story of one person [O'Neill], so we had to make him more central to the case than he actually was," says Ray.

Beyond these scenes, as is often the case with historical dramas, many characters are composited into a few figures and the timeline has been compressed. But the film sticks closely to both the spirit and detail of the most important events, says O'Neill.

Besides, he adds, it's Hollywood. "This isn't on the Biography Channel, after all," adds O'Neill. "The studio needs to make a story that people will come see."

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