DVD Review:

‘Master Spy’ Less than Masterful

By Craig Henderson


Real spies, as is oft pointed out, don’t indulge in James Bond derring-do. They

just quietly sell out their countries for a variety of motives and loads of cash. So

an incisive examination of the hidden conflicts driving a recently notorious real-life traitor should make a great movie. Unfortunately, the DVD release of Master Spy: The Robert Hanssen Story doesn’t reveal much more than a marketing error on the part of 20th Century-Fox studios.

Robert P. Hanssen is the perplexing fellow who sold America’s topmost top-secrets to the Soviet Union for 20 years while working as a trusted counterintelligence agent for the FBI. Master Spy unravels the complex inner workings of his mind thusly: bing! My father ridicules everything I do; bang! We need more money; boom! I think I’ll sell all this classified information in my desk to the Russians.

Huh? Did I miss something?

Quite a bit, actually, since the picture was produced as a made-for-TV movie

that aired for two nights in two-hour timeslots. The DVD releases a 122-minute European theatrical version that loses nearly half the original running time but

adds enough nudity and sex scenes to earn this cut an R rating.

So presumably the much longer TV version did offer a revealing portrait of Hanssen (presumably, since your reviewer must admit he missed the broadcast). Certainly director Lawrence Schiller and screenwriter and celebrated author Norman Mailer are capable of far better than this choppy, curiously uninvolving film. They previously collaborated on such acclaimed projects as The Executioner’s Song, the story of the life and death of convicted killer Gary Gilmore.

But the severe editing that produced this theatrical release leaves Hanssen an enigma from beginning to end, and his actions as a spy merely highlighted. By the end of the movie, Hanssen observes the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union and is arrested seemingly minutes later — in February 2001.

Production values are the usual high-end television level — interiors shot in Toronto leaving enough time and money to squeeze in location shooting in Washington, Moscow and even Hong Kong. But Hong Kong and Moscow are seen so briefly in this version that stock footage would have worked as well.

The film features a top-notch cast, headed by William Hurt as Hanssen and including Mary-Louise Parker as his uptight wife, Peter Boyle as his abusive father, Ron Silver as the longtime colleague who — finally — orders the surveillance that leads to Hanssen’s arrest, and Wayne Knight as the oddball Hanssen’s closest friend in the FBI. Hurt does his best to portray the dramatic contradictions inherent in Hanssen — highly intelligent yet socially maladroit, a pious Catholic with a porno obsession, a driven anti-Communist who sells out to the KGB of his own volition — but it’s all for naught in this truncated release.

Fox tries to have it both ways here, trumpeting the “shocking true story” with favorable review quotes for the TV version, while also labeling the sexed-up cut the story of “the daring traitor who sells America’s nuclear secrets to the KGB — entering into a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse that could cost him his life.”

Master Spy proves an ironically funny title given the recent release of the Justice Department’s investigation of the Hanssen fiasco. Inspector General Glenn A. Fine’s report to the department concluded that although Hanssen “escaped detection for more than 20 years, this was not because he was a ‘master spy.’ Hanssen escaped detection not because he was extraordinarily clever and crafty, but because of long-standing systemic problems in the FBI’s counterintelligence program and a deeply flawed FBI internal security program.”


Bonus features include an interview with Mailer and Schiller in which they talk about the great lengths they went to in researching Hanssen’s case and interviewing everyone concerned to come up with the complete story. But that complete story must be in the TV-movie version. It certainly isn’t here. It’s almost funny that Fox includes another “bonus” of “deleted” scenes that did appear in the television cut.

Technically, the DVD is the professional job you’d expect from a major studio, a fine transfer with top-quality picture and sound. Oddly, the packaging says the picture is full-screen (1.33:1) when it’s actually the wide-screen theatrical print.

Way back in Hollywood’s golden age, the studios got extra mileage out of their serials — the weekly cliffhangers that ran anywhere from 12 to 15 chapters — by chopping them up and reassembling some footage into B-level features. The results often were incomprehensible. Obviously, some lessons are never learned.

Master Spy: The Robert Hanssen Story

From Fox Home Entertainment



Color, Closed-captioned

Widescreen, although the packaging and Fox publicity say it’s full-screen

2.0 Dolby Surround

Keep Case

122 min.

Special Features

Director’s commentary by Lawrence Schiller

Seven deleted scenes with optional director’s commentary

Behind-the-scenes featurette

SRP: $14.98

Released May 2003