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Arts & Culture

Breach/Interviews with Eric O'Neill and Billy Ray

FBI agent Robert Hansson was responsible for what has been called the largest security breach in U.S. history. A team of more than 500 agents were involved in the case. One of those agents was Eric ONeill. The new film

Breach (opening February 16 throughout San Diego) tells the story of his role in the investigation. KPBS film critic Beth Accomando speaks with ONeill as well as the films writer-director.

Ryan Phillipe and Chris Cooper in Breach


John Ashcroft: "Sunday the FBI successfully concluded an investigation to end a very serious breach in the security of the United States."

On February 18, 2001, Robert Hanssons arrest put an end to his 25-years as an FBI agent. It also put an end to 22 years of selling U.S. intelligence information to the Russians. The final two months of his career, as seen by young FBI agent Eric ONeill, is the subject of the new film Breach . The subject matter makes it a spy film but the story is much more that of a procedural crime thriller. Thats fine with Eric ONeill, who served as a special consultant on the production. It was important to him and the filmmakers to get things right.

ERIC ONEILL: "That we get the culture right, and that we get the way the FBI does stuff right, and that we not add these super crazy type elements that people seem to think need to be in a spy movie."

For writer-director Billy Ray, the key was making the actors behave in a way thats credible.

BILLY RAY: "Most people who work at the FBI are normal people who have families and they have to deal with the same things at their jobs that everyone else has to deal except they have these enormous stakes and what does that do to people."


Focusing on the people is what Breach does well. One of the fascinating aspects of the case is Robert Hansson. Hollywood couldnt have created a more intriguing and contradictory character says Billy Ray.

Director Billy Ray with actor Chris Cooper

BILLY RAY: "When youre dealing with a character like Robert Hansson its all subtext, because hes talking about loyalty and patriotism, and trying to help bureau. Hes also talking about the importance of religion and faith in god. And hes violating all these principles all the time and thats totally compelling to me."

And compelling to audiences. The Catholic Hansson presented himself as a very moral and religious man.

Hansson: "God expects you to live your faith, Eric, at all times."

In the film, Chris Cooper plays Hansson. Cooper turns the character into a study in dichotomy, one side preaching morality while the other was incredibly immoral. By focusing in on the relationship between Hansson and ONeill, the film creates a very character driven story. Its the personal make up of Hanssons character, not his political beliefs that made him a traitor. And it was ONeills ability to use his own Catholicism that allowed him to win Hanssons trust. By mixing his personal life with his job, truth and lies, ONeill was able to deceive Hansson.

Hansson: "I need to know if I can trust you. Who was calling you in the car?

ONeill: "That page was from my wife, we had another fight about you."

ONeill says the film got the details of both his personal and professional life right. But one thing he knew the film couldnt provide was an answer as to why Hansson did what he did. ONeill speculates that Hansson initially sold secrets so that he could better provide for his family.

Actor Ryan Phillipe with Eric O'Neill, the FBI agent he plays in Breach

ERIC ONEILL: "I think it then became a drug, this sexy spy life where hes so appreciated by the other side when he was ignored by the FBI, a combination of factors made this more important and he rationalized his morality. He knew it was wrong but couldnt stop himself."

BILLY RAY: "Eric and I disagree about this. I believe he had a complete absence of a moral rudder. Theres a moment when you have a choice between the right thing and the wrong thing, and you generally choose the right thing. You constantly have these negotiations and you hope you constantly make the right choice. I won't cheat, I won't lie because those are the right things to do. This guy almost without exception made the wrong choice from the beginning. Thats because of who he is."

Hansson: The perks go to the guys who play the game the ones who politic, I knew a long time ago I didnt have the stomach for that. It doesnt matter much, the judgments of other men. I know what Ive done."

In Breach , trying to understand human nature proves to be just as difficult and just as important as having the best technology and resources. Breach shows how even within the world of espionage, things often come down to questions of character.

Companion viewing: The Third Man, The Ipcress File, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, The Falcon and the Snowman, Syriana