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Fox Home Entertainment presents
Master Spy: The Robert Hanssen Story (2002)

"That would be betraying your comrades, who could do that?"
- Robert Hanssen (William Hurt)

Review By: Joel Cunningham   
Published: August 05, 2003

Stars: William Hurt, Mary Louise-Parker
Other Stars: David Strathairn, Ron Silver, Hilit Pace, Wayne Knight, Peter Boyle
Director: Lawrence Schiller

MPAA Rating: R for sexuality, nudity, and brief violence
Run Time: 02h:03m:00s
Release Date: May 20, 2003
UPC: 024543070511
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
C C-BC+ C-

DVD Review

There have been many entertaining movies about spies, but most have been produced with the same pro-America sheen as a Hollywood war film. Usually they involve foreign agents infiltrating the American government, or American G-Men going overseas to work undercover. Rarely do the Americans offer their services and their privileged information to the enemy. Even films about corruption in the agency involve lone "bad guys" acting for their own self-interest. The popular image of the FBI is closer to The X-Files than to the dull, pencil-pushing work of most agents. It's hard to imagine why Mulder or Scully would want to sell secrets to the KGB. It's easier to see why a low-level desk man like Robert Hanssen would do so.

Hanssen, a lifelong analyst for the FBI, was arrested in 2001 and charged with 15 years worth of crimes against the United States. During his years at the New York bureau, he leaked 6,000 sensitive documents to Russian intelligence, leading to the deaths of at least three undercover agents. His crimes stunned the nation and his co-workers—it wasn't just that he was, on the surface, a devout Catholic and family man. There was also the idea that he was an American who sold out his comrades at the height of the Cold War 1980s. The same way that the treason of Benedict Arnold ensured that the man's name would go down in history, Hanssen's betrayal resulted in hundreds of news and magazine articles, and, eventually, a made-for-TV miniseries.

Master Spy: The Robert Hanssen Story, directed by Lawrence Schiller and written by his frequent collaborator Norman Mailer, originally ran nearly four hours, and is now being released to DVD in a truncated version that runs half as long. Schiller states that he prefers the shorter cut. I can see his reasoning—after two hours spent with the cold, distant protagonist, I can't say I have any significant understanding of why he did what he did. I can't imagine another two hours would help.

William Hurt plays Hanssen with a curiously flat affect throughout, even in happier scenes with his wife (Mary-Louise Parker, mangling what sounds like a New England accent). We watch as Hanssen struggles with his past (he had an abusive father), his personal demons (he's a voyeur who wants to watch his best friend make love to his wife), his religion, and his stagnant career (his superior, played by Ron Silver, tells him he's too smart to advance in rank). One day, he decides to sell a few worthless secrets to the KGB to help pay off some debts. Soon, he's doing it more and more, thinking himself an equal servant to both masters.

I wouldn't want to watch a film about Hanssen that didn't try to address his motivations, but Master Spy fails because it tackles the issue from the most simplistic standpoint—Hanssen's father gave him an inferiority complex, it was fueled by his unfulfilling career, and the only way to escape was to build himself a more exciting life—and does it in the most heavy-handed manner. Hurt delivers ponderous pages of ludicrous inner monologue, turning Hanssen into a tortured caricature (on the shooting range: "Yes, James Bond, you're good at killing dummies, but do you have the guts to kill a real man?").

Schiller is a serviceable director, but aside from a few cinematic scenes, much of the production feels stifled and false (particularly the faux-poetic imagery at the end). Mailer, an award-winning writer who also penned miniseries about Marilyn Monroe and the O.J. Simpson trial, is too in love with his own words (how else to explain a line like "I need a confidante for little things, for picayune worries, the kind that eat at your stomach lining..."?). Robert Hanssen is behind bars, but his crime remains a mystery.

Rating for Style: C
Rating for Substance: C-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The back of the box states that this made-for-TV film is presented in a modified full-frame format, but the transfer is actually anamorphic widescreen with an aspect ratio somewhere around 1.78:1 or 1.85:1. It's not a bad looking image, though it does betray the feature's television level budget with a persistent softness and lack of detail. Colors are generally well saturated and natural, though there is some occasional blooming with bright red and blue hues. Black level is fair, with some darker scenes looking fine, and others showing too much gray. There is a bit of visible grain throughout, but no visible print defects. I spotted some aliasing on hard surfaces, but no artifacting to speak of.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: The audio presentation is fair, but there are some problems areas. Most of the dialogue is clear and audible, but at times characters will speak in muffled tones or whispers, and the vocals will be overpowered by ambient noise on the track. Sound is anchored in the front mains, with the surrounds providing limited ambiance. This is undemanding material (only occasional sound effects and subdued music), that sounds ok, save the intermittent problem with the dialogue.

Audio Transfer Grade: C+


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 32 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
13 Deleted Scenes
1 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director Lawrence Schiller
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extras Review: Master Spy features a fair number of supplements for a TV miniseries, but what is included isn't particularly insightful or entertaining. Director Lawrence Schiller contributes a feature-length commentary track, during which he spends most of his time explaining how faithful the picture is to real life events, and the arduous undertaking of interviewing so many important people.

More horns are tooted in the 15-minute making-of featurette, which features interviews with Schiller, writer Norman Mailer, and actors William Hurt and Mary-Louise Parker. Schiller in particular is unlikable here, explaining how his film touched Hanssen's family and how he was able to interview KGB officials that "no journalist could get." There is some limited behind-the-scenes footage to counter all of the PR fluff, but not enough to actually merit a viewing.

Rounding out the disc is a collection of 13 scenes deleted from the original miniseries running time (which stretched to nearly four hours). All include optional commentary from Schiller explaining why they were excised from the feature film version. He believes that the film plays best at its two hour length, and I tend to agree—these scenes are pretty dull.

Extras Grade: C-


Final Comments

Stage-y and pretentious, the edited film version of the miniseries Master Spy: The Robert Hanssen Story manages to render a most thrilling story lifeless and inert. Fox's DVD is ridiculously overpriced ($35), and so earns a rental recommendation only, even to fans of the film.


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