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Scandal at the FB ... OY!

February 15, 2007 By:
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Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe, left) tries to get the goods on spy Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper), in "Breach."
Giving "Breach" birth may be the breakout hit Philadelphia filmmakers Adam Mazer and William Rotko have been looking for -- and deserve.

The true-life thriller chiller about the spy who came in from the Cold War and poked the federal officials in its FBeye by turning turncoat -- doing irrevocable harm by selling off top state secrets to the Soviets -- tops a must-see list of films early in a year that ends with triple digits that suggest espionage at its epicenter.

But there is no Miss Moneypenny missing here, just money in the millions, which Robert Hanssen earned by selling out the United States while serving as an FBI agent in what may have been the most notorious and perverse "unpatriot" act yet.

A self-declared true-blue American, Hanssen had his focus more on the red than the white and blue, as this agent of contrarian moral codes proved the worst possible cipher during a time when the USSR and the United States shared little but their first two initials.

Opening this Friday, "Breach" brims with the bravura that comes from a well-crafted cat-and-mouse mission impossible, in which the baited cheese traps the trusted and the treasonous, both finding themselves lured into a Langley lifestyle that allowed little breathing room for family or outsiders.

As Hanssen (Chris Cooper) wore his morally seditious acts as a badge of carnage, it was Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe), the young agent wannabe, who went undercover to topple this enemy of the people.

And just who is the good shepherd who helped shepherd this fact-based film to the screen, where its secret power pulls one almost out of the seat with its incessant intensity? Mazer and Rotko both bonded long after leaving Philadelphia, but their roots are a legacy of local cheerleaders, loopy with l'chaims.

Co-penning a paean to the FBI agents who uncovered a traitor in their midst, Mazer is amazed at the "Breach" buzz, and has always been "fascinated by the FBI."

In a nice, nonfelonious kind of way. Admonishes the kibitzer: "I'm not a criminal."

But he's stolen the limelight, as has Rotko, by coming up with the "screenplay/story" credits -- along with director Billy Ray -- that open "Breach" up and may well mean an Oscar for actor Chris Cooper when the Academy gathers to calculate votes at next year's ceremony.

But then, maybe Mazer really is agog over the agency. After all, he is also the creator and writer for the CW pilot of "Ghosts," which profiles younger members of the FBI's Special Surveillance Group.

You don't need a phone tap to tap into his feelings about these "unsung heroes."

'Guilt People to Death'
As a kid growing up in the Northeast, did Mazer ever feel he wanted to abandon Bustleton Avenue for the bustling life of an FBI agent?

"I never considered it," he says, "but now that I've met so many members of the FBI, I have a fantasy that I'd love to be one of them one day. I don't know how many Jews they have working as agents," he concedes comically. "Maybe I could start the Jewish Unit; we'd guilt people to death."

Don't give up your day job just yet, Mazer. But, then, why would he? It's a great either/oar career with a raft of writing credits both (Napoleon) solo and in tandem with Rotko.

The write stuff this time may have been a random act. As it turns out, Rotko's brother was buds with O'Neill, the young agent hopeful who served as the agent of change when it came to capturing the real-life Hanssen. Mazer and Rotko were then introduced to O'Neill, whose spy-spun story seemed more maddeningly out-there than a Mad magazine spoof.

But it was real. "We met Eric when he was just a few weeks removed from the case."

Just the fax ... and e-mails, and phone calls ... followed with help also from Rotko's father, "who was a U.S. attorney in Philadelphia and helped introduce us to a couple of lawyers" connected to the FBI.

It was a dramatic dragnet that drew Rotko and Mazer into the maze that is Hollywood. But both knew their way around, having connected with film companies and proving themselves to be "Super Troopers" -- on which they were associate producers -- and attracting attention as authors from auteurs.

Not that their first script scenario was scripted for stardom. Their initial collaboration was on a story inspired by the local Edward Savitz sexual-depravity scandal of 1992, in which a seemingly unassuming insurance executive assumed the grotesque image of gargoyle in a pedophilia story that shocked Philadelphians long after the accused's arrest and later death by AIDS.

Too dark a script, the two were told. Mazer and Rotko saw the light, but then, both came from enlightened childhoods.

Mazer's days in the Northeast 'hood were often capped off by visits to Center City, where his family ran a dry-cleaning business. It became a spin cycle for a youngster who would one day spin out richly shaded and complex scripts. "Here I was a little Jewish kid from the Northeast who spent a lot of time in Center City," where the ethnic mix at the cleaner's and on the streets added fabric to his fables to come.

Not that they were the only influences; while his parents, Leonard and the late Sheila Mazer, were "divorced when I was young," there was no separating him from the influence of two icons he applauds as incredible to this day: his grandparents, Irene and Phil Pollock, whose Jewish sense of justice taught their grandson "not to be judgmental about anyone."

But he can't help adjudge as wonderful his two children with adored wife Allyson Schwartz -- no, not that one -- a perfect candidate, he avows, for person, wife, mother, executive (she heads up a corporate head-hunter company) of the year.

And this may be some year: "I've been approached to do a project on Jack Kevorkian," says Mazer of the soon-to-be released imprisoned euthanasia-practicing doc not so euphemistically known as "Dr. Death."

Just the right jolt of juice for a career that careens along the social justice side of life's ride with interest always, says Mazer, "on the humanity level."

That ride's far from leveling off, headed bravely skyward with "Breach." Such an accomplishment and kudos -- and security clearance by critics and public alike -- may lead Mazer to the ultimate prize any nice Jewish guy could covet.

An Oscar? No -- an Irene! "Maybe it'll get me some extra kamish bread from my grandmother the next time I'm in Philadelphia." 

 

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