Everybody says that they like ’70s American cinema but when modern filmmakers take the trouble to honor the films of their youth no one goes to see them. Three recent examples are Zodiac, Breach, and The Good Shepherd. All three are expensive, well-mounted, serious, moody films about real events and each one adopts different aspects of ’70s films as colors on its palette. Breach’s look and feel has its roots in All the President’s Men, The Good Shepherd evokes memories of The Godfather Part II, and Zodiac draws on numerous ’70s films set in San Francisco, such as Dirty Harry for its look, especially in its interiors.
All these films “flopped” at the box office, probably because word of mouth said they were slow and anti-dramatic. But guess what? Most of the films from the ’70s now heralded as masterpieces also were flops. And many of them tended to be slow and static. The Paper Chase, for example, one of the few indie style hits of the time, proved on a recent re-viewing to be surprisingly slow paced, ponderous, and oblique in its storytelling, along with passages of shallow, out of date humor.
On the other hand, The Paper Chase was photographed by the great Gordon Willis. And upon reflection, the 1970s may be more a cinematographer’s decade than a director’s. We remember the look of so many of those films better than anything else, from Willis in the Godfather films to John Alonzo in Chinatown to David Watkin in Catch 22, among so many others. Even when the plots were clunky or ill-thought out, the photography saved the day, making memorable cinematic material that might otherwise have appeared even more shallow if given the typical Universal, say, treatment of the day, TV lighting and garish interiors.
For the record, the DPs for the three films under consideration are Harris Savides (Zodiac), Tak Fujimoto (Breach), and Robert Richardson (The Good Shepherd). Zodiac comes out on DVD in July and I’ll probably buy a copy to review it since Paramount seems to have dropped me from its list (while other reviewers I know never review Paramount product yet receive everything the company puts out by rote … end of snit).
The Good Shepherd came out on DVD from Universal on April 3rd (for $29.95; there is also a full frame and an HD version of the disc), and also Newmarket Press published the script (166 pages, $19.95, ISBN 978 1 55704 774 8). On disc, the film continues to fascinate and move me, and the supplemental scenes, of which there are about 16 minutes worth, encompass a whole subplot that underscores again one thread of the story, that Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) has been betrayed by everyone around him: father, wife, son, and mentors. The Newmarket script has more deleted scenes, plus a slightly different order of events especially at the end. The script clarifies certain facets of the film that for some reason weren’t clear, or at least clear to me, in the theater (for example, what is really going on when Wilson gives a Soviet toady a dollar bill in the Smithsonian).
The script helped me realize two things. One, that Angelina Jolie was totally miscast as Wilson’s wife (also, the young actor who plays Wilson’s adult son strikes me as a bit over the top). She is dark and aggressive when the character should be blonde and patrician. Then, her sexual aggression toward Wilson would have come as a surprise, and made clear what is hinted at in the finished film, that members of his secret society meet annually in part to find mates for each other, to breed and keep their social class closed to outsiders. Someone like Julie Bowen might have done the part effortlessly, making the shotgun marriage aspect of the story more subtle.
Second, the terribly poignant plot thread concerning Wilson’s first girlfriend, Laura (Tammy Blanchard) is one of the keys to Wilson’s character. She is deaf, and for a withdrawn, silent fellow, that makes her the perfect mate. But he is sucked into Skull and Bones, and thus the CIA, and must reject her, though in the script, not before she teaches him the helpful arts of lip reading. It is unclear from both the script or the finished film if later encounters with her are part of a plot by his counterpart in the Soviet Union to undermine Wilson’s life. The only thing the script didn’t solve is just who gives Wilson the mysterious folder of covert photos and tapes at the start (I’ve guessing it was his Soviet counterpart, again).
In time, Breach may well be esteemed as one of the best films of 2007, but for now it is a “disappointment” that made only $33 million dollars for Universal and went to DVD in four months, debuting on disc on Tuesday, June 12 (in both widescreen and full frame for $29.95). Co-writer and director Billy Ray did for the case of FBI agent and Soviet asset Robert Hanssen what he did for New Republic writer Stephen Glass in his earlier Shattered Glass, in other words, showed how one complexly motivated individual can confound an overly trusting or oblivious institution. In both films, Ray evinces certain very agreeable qualities, such as a knack for perfect casting and a visual style and pace inspired by the best of the ’70s films. But Breach had something else: breaking news. The movie was the first public account of the role of FBI agent Eric O’Neill in the downfall of Hanssen. Recruited from an undercover assignment, O’Neill’s task was to work under Hanssen in the spy’s new virtually self-contained office, the Information Assurance Division, where he ostensibly safeguards the Bureau’s IT system from cyberterrorism and infiltration. O’Neill at first believed that he was spying on Hanssen because of his sexual conduct and in order to ferret out fellow agents who might, all together, embarrass the FBI. But soon enough a confused O’Neill learns from his handler (Laura Linney) that the otherwise squeaky-clean seeming Hanssen is under suspicion for handing over secrets to the Soviets since the 1980s.
That’s what undercover agents do. They make everyone else around them lead double lives. Both Hanssen and O’Neill, in the movie anyway, inveigle their own wives into weird compromising situations. When the Hanssen case broke, O’Neill’s role was minimized or kept out of press, for the simple reason that the government wasn’t sure what Hanssen would do. In the end, Hanssen pled guilty and O’Neill didn’t need to testify.
Another aspect of the case that the movie mentions only in passing is just how the FBI finally got clued into the otherwise impeccably repped Hanssen’s activities in the first place. The general suspicion among armchair analysts is that one of several KGB or other Russian defectors in late 2000, among them Sergei Tretyakov, a first secretary in Russia’s UN mission, or Yevgeny Toropov, another Russian intelligence officer who defected in Ottawa. Supposedly, someone provided the FBI with a case file that finally implicated Hanssen. In the film, Laura Linney’s character mentions that the FBI paid $17 million dollars to whichever defector it was who came over, bearing case files that proved Hanssen’s involvement.
But what was it like for the real O’Neill, first to live through the tense experience itself, and then to have a movie made about the situation. O’Neill discusses some of this on an audio commentary he shares with Bill Ray (the disc also has 10 alternate or deleted scenes with optional commentary by Ray and editor Jeffrey Ford, along with two making ofs, and a report about Hanssen from Dateline that aired in March of 2001 a month after Hanssen’s arrest (and which doesn’t mention O’Neill). His audio commentary track goes into some of this, but when the opportunity to interview Mr. O’Neill came along I decided to explore a few other implications of the story. What follows is an expanded version of an interview posted in part elsewhere.
Where is Hanssen now and what is he doing? Is he cooperating, as per the terms of his plea agreement?
Hanssen is serving a life sentence in Florence, Colorado supermax penitentiary. He spends 23 hours a day in solitary confinement — mostly reading books. He is not allowed visitors or mail. Last I heard, he began to have “memory problems” and stopped cooperating with officials.
When, if ever, will we know more details about the case, such as who on the Soviet side, after 15 years, turned him in and to whom — and why?
We know who turned him in. Well, I do, but you don’t and it will probably be some time until the ex-KGB agent who defected decides its time to write a book of her/his own.
The movie leaves out the sex stuff, except very briefly. This shows great restraint and a measure of taste, but does it deny the viewer anything significant about understanding Hanssen or his complexities?
The sex stuff doesn’t help the movie and belaboring would not help audiences understand Hanssen better or get into his head any more than we already provided. It would have just served as a red herring that would distract the audience from the central Robert Hanssen question — why did Hanssen spy? We even leave that open for discussion. Also, by the time the temporal events of the movie take place, Hanssen had already stopped seeing the stripper  and wasn’t spending long afternoons in strip clubs.
What did you like and dislike about post-Hoover FBI culture?
I was never a part of the Hoover culture, only the post-Hoover culture (I’m only 34) so I really couldn’t say.
What’s something about being an “under cover agent” that surprised you?
You never have any time to yourself. The case consumes every waking thought, and most of your sleeping ones.
In the looking glass world of spying, did you ever get the feeling that the fact that your wife was East German cast any suspicions about you?
When I announced that I was engaged to marry a German the first question was “which kind.” I said that it’s all one Germany now, and my superiors responded, “not to us.” My security clearance was pulled while the FBI spent some days investigating Juliana from the Berlin office.
One of the deleted scenes on the DVD makes clear that one of Hanssen’s irritations was that his superiors both didn’t listen to him and were out of date and unlettered in computer technology. In some twisted way was Hanssen a patriot?
Hanssen was not a patriot. I disagree with a number of people on this point, including Billy Ray! But that’s what makes the movie magic. We don’t try to force feed the audience — we don’t tell them what to think of feel. We provide them with the facts, and let the audience use their minds to make their own decisions — and then hopefully go to a coffee shop, or a bar, or sit down over a glass of wine and think about the movie and discuss it. I believe that Hanssen did what he did because he felt anger at the FBI for not listening to him. He was the quintessential nerd that rubbed all the jocks at the FBI’s noses in the dirt of his betrayal. He made everyone a complete fool. There is power in that.
It’s minimized in the movie, but what do you think the role of Opus Dei was in influencing Hanssen or making him a rebel?
I think that the stringent financial requirements of belonging to Opus Dei might have worked with Hanssen’s inflated sense of self worth and ego to initially set him on the path of spying. This is in no part a fault of the Opus Dei (or especially) the Catholic religion, but one of zealotry. Hanssen was a zealot, and this made him go overboard in following his religion. Too many kids too fast, a requirement to tithe to the church, and a need to be somewhere in society that most of us work hard to rise to — all these things led to Hanssen’s eventual betrayal. He may have started that way, but I think he continued to spy out of a fundamental need for the rush that spying gave him. The Russians made him feel sexy, cool, and most importantly, they made him belong to something. While he might have been the FBI’s nerd, he was the Soviet Unions’ quarterback.
Hanssen was arrested in Feb of 2001; a few months later the 9/11 attacks occurred. Is there any feasible connection between Hanssen’s spying and impediments within the FBI concerning the events of that day, or about staying on top of terrorists in general?
I’m sure there are some connections. Hanssen sold secrets to the Soviet Union who were notorious for selling American secrets to terrorist organizations. Considering that Hanssen blew holes in our counter intelligence capability — it stands to reason that Terrorist organizations have and continue to benefit from the betrayal of Robert Hanssen.
Were you suspicious of Hollywood’s ability to remain true to the real life story?
I never believed that Hollywood would have the capacity to remain so true to my story. I should probably play the lottery — the sheer luck I had in meeting such talented writers, producers and director, with such a perfect studio is astronomical.
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