- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 15, 2007

Former FBI agent Eric O’Neill scoffed when his brother suggested his work nailing spy Robert Hanssen would make a great movie.

“The FBI will never allow it … I’ll go to jail,” Mr. O’Neill recalls saying.

But the case against Hanssen, among the most notorious spies in U.S. history, moved swiftly through the legal system, allowing Mr. O’Neill to tell, and sell, the key elements of his story to Hollywood.

“Breach,” a true crime thriller opening today, recalls Mr. O’Neill’s fateful pairing with Hanssen. Directed and co-written by Billy Ray (“Shattered Glass”), “Breach” plays out like a feverish character piece with ugly truths streaked throughout.

A still-green agent (Ryan Phillippe playing Mr. O’Neill) is assigned to shadow longtime operative Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper) under the pretext that the latter is suspected of using FBI computers for sexual hijinks. In reality, the FBI knows Hanssen is giving secrets to the Russians, and it wants Mr. O’Neill — still unaware of the true purpose of his surveillance mission — to help flush him into plain sight.

Hanssen is as brilliant as Mr. O’Neill is untested, and the latter puts his life and marriage in jeopardy to do the FBI’s bidding.

Mr. Ray, whose directorial debut captured the plagiarism scandal surrounding the New Republic’s Stephen Glass, found a second layer to the Hanssen debacle for his “Shattered” follow-up.

“For me, the movie is about how our mentors can teach us even when they’re failing,” Mr. Ray says. “Through his experience with Hanssen, Eric is forced to re-evaluate his feelings for his job, his marriage and his religion.”

Mr. Ray finds himself once more telling a true story, a difficult challenge in Hollywood, where character arcs and pat endings outweigh the truth.

The writer-director says his assignment this time was easier — but not by much.

“With ‘Shattered Glass,’ we had to hit a higher standard of accuracy,” he says. “With this movie, there were certain things we had to get right, like the behavior of Robert Hanssen … and never accuse him of something he didn’t actually do.”

The fudging comes with Mr. O’Neill’s character, but Mr. Ray is unapologetic.

“Eric O’Neill was one of 500 people working to try to nail this guy,” he says. “If you want to do a completely accurate telling of that story, I need 500 lead characters.”

Mr. O’Neill entered the project with no control over the finished product, worried more about the actor who would portray him than anything else.

Cast and crew embraced his input, and he walked away from the movie with a longing for more.

“Billy kept me involved beyond what we expected, and he made us feel the Hollywood part,” says Mr. O’Neill, who left law enforcement following the Hanssen case for a legal career.

Not for long, perhaps.

He’s currently working on a television project, called “Ghosts,” about the kind of surveillance operations he engaged in before the Hanssen affair.

Making the movie “opened my eyes to something that’s much cooler than what I’m doing here,” he says.

Christian Toto

Art embraces film

When you visit a museum, you’re likely to encounter every sort of visual art but one — the one that’s taken over the public imagination, the movies.

But the first filmmakers worked squarely within the tradition of painting and drawing. So the Phillips Collection reminds us with the opening of “Moving Pictures: American Art and Early Film.” The fascinating exhibition, organized by the Williams College Museum of Art, opens tomorrow and runs until May 20.

Forty-four flat-screen monitors of varying sizes play 60 films alongside 85 paintings, illustrations, photographs, posters and books, mostly from the years 1880 to 1910. Most cinemas encased their screens with painted gold frames, emphasizing how early film was seen as an art form akin to fine painting.

Visitors will learn that film wasn’t always so plot-obsessed. A Sears, Roebuck and Co. advertising poster from 1900 gives an idea of what early artists in the genre filmed: “Scenes and Incidents from the late War with Spain, Railway Trains Going at Full Speed, Marching Scenes, Comic Scenes, Bicycle Parades, etc.”

The first publicly shown film was the Edison Manufacturing Co.’s 1893 “Blacksmithing Scene.” Like almost all of the films on display, it’s a slice of life of less than a minute.

“If ever an exhibition was about a conversation between artists … this is it,” Phillips director Jay Gates said at a press preview. The Phillips drives this intriguing idea home by presenting films and paintings on the same subjects side by side.

The stark grandeur of the American landscape was a popular focus of both arts at the time. Haines’ Falls is depicted on one wall in a film, a painting and an illustration from Harper’s magazine. Mary Cassatt’s impressionist painting “The Barefooted Child” captures intimate domestic life like the film beside it, “Feeding the Baby,” made by Edison’s French rival, Cinematographe Lumiere.

Curators sometimes make too much of the similarities. Many paintings are described as “cinematic,” as if a panoramic view of the landscape couldn’t be seen by the human eye before the invention of film. John Singer Sargent’s wonderful, angular watercolor “Venice: Under the Rialto Bridge” is situated next to a film of the Grand Canal with the note that the great American painter saw many films. Yes, but he also saw Venice.

It’s a quibble in an exhibition that shows not only the beginnings of a new art form but also its important documentary qualities. George Wesley Bellows’ 1911 painting “New York,” though teeming with life, is overshadowed by a myriad of film clips documenting life in the city when people like Edith Wharton and Upton Sinclair roamed its streets.

Film lovers will be happy to know that the Phillips is screening films over the next few months as part of the exhibition. On Thursday, “The First Reality Shows” offer viewers a look at everyday life around the turn of the century.

The “world’s first blockbuster movie,” 1903’s 10-minute-long “The Great Train Robbery,” screens on March 1 and May 18.

For more information, visit www.phillipscollection.org.

Kelly Jane Torrance

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