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Case Number 02978

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Master Spy: The Robert Hanssen Story

Fox // 2003 // 122 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // June 6th, 2003

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All Rise...

The Charge

He betrayed his family, friends and country. Why?

Opening Statement

Based on the real-life events of Robert Hanssen, this two-hour cut of a four-hour made-for-TV movie tries to explain and rationalize the motivations of America's most notorious and successful spy. However, the film delves too deeply into the psyche of a genuinely uninteresting and conflicted man, and cuts corners in terms of plot and dramatic development.

Facts of the Case

As a Canadian, I am slightly less privy to the international politics and breaking news headlines concerning the United States—say, like an American with only one ear.

Robert Hanssen was big news, even north of the border. For 22 years, Hanssen was a loving father who raised six children, fighting communism as a loyal and successful FBI agent, and a devout Catholic who, as a hobby, sold more secrets to the Russians than any other American in history. From the start of his prolific espionage career to his ultimate capture and imprisonment, the film takes us on an exploration of a man who had the perfect American life, and ruined it, attempting to answer the question of "why?"

Hanssen (played by William Hurt) comes across as a well-spoken, spiritual, fiercely intelligent, but highly alienating person—his higher-ups in the FBI warm him to "dumb down" and "improve his people skills," if he wants to make it in the business. He is too ambitious, too smart for his own good, we are told early on, and again and again is passed up for promotion.

As his family grows in size, his financial situation grows worse. The Hanssens are forced to depend on the financial charity of his ridiculing, abusive, overbearing father, until the father refuses to stop ridiculing Robert in front of his children. They cut him out of their lives, but quickly find financial independence to be stressful and painful for their family. Unable to support his family, he begins finding "alternative" ways to support his home and loved ones.

We are to understand Hanssen as an honest, patriotic man who is too ambitious, too intelligent, and gets passed up for promotions at work, ridiculed by his father, and suffering the indignity of being unable to support his wife and family. Like all things, it starts small—some penny-ante information collected from work, sent off to the GRU (a Soviet intelligence agency) for pocket money. And, like all things, things rapidly spin out of control.

The Evidence

Penned by the excellent Norman Mailer, the story is straightforward, while being very self-indulgent and cold; while interesting and informative, Hanssen is given very little space to develop his motives and justifications. He is a complicated and distant protagonist—selling secrets to the Russians causes him no internal grief, but the idea of setting foot in a strip club is akin to paying their salary, and is in essence, sinful and morally repugnant. The script feels stretched at times, desperate almost to scrape together a psychological profile of a man rather than an excellent screenplay.

The argument put forth to justify Hanssen's actions, like all inherently guilty men, is one of self-preservation and rationalization. William Hurt's portrayal of Hanssen is a slow and measured one, sort of like absolutely everything Hurt has ever done—but it works. Hanssen works harder than anyone else, and makes less money than his apathetic co-workers. He fears the level of desperation on the part of the Soviets, and the growing menace of the Cold War begins fueling pseudo-justifications for his actions. Maybe if the Russians were less desperate, less hungry, more informed, they would be less likely to try something desperate. His house is ten miles from the White House—a nuclear bomb would kill his family. Can his information somehow prevent this and protect his family?

Not really, because these are not his true motivations. As he gets deeper and deeper into a mess of babbling rationalization, his slip on reality begins to degrade. Through dramatic, but amazingly corny internal monologues, Hanssen walks around, saying absurd things like "You have no idea who you're dealing with," and comparing himself to the likes of James Bond. Rather than address the question of "why?," the film seems content to present a cross-section of a narcissistic, diametrically opposed man with serious personality issues, offering no motivation behind his actions other than a serious God complex.

In regards to the aspect ratio of the film: there seems to be some confusion. The DVD packaging advertises the disc to be presented in a 4:3 full screen transfer, formatted to fit my screen (*sniff* I feel special!). However, imagine my surprise when I actually played the disc. Lo! To my amusement, the disc itself came up in (what appeared to be) its native 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio, with no option at all to set the disc for full screen.

Now, whether this is merely a mistake on the packaging of the screener, or a mislabeling on the retail copies of the disc, I cannot say. However, for the sake of review, I shall proceed as if all copies of the disc are indeed widescreen, since mine is (hey, what else matters?) However, it should be noted that retail copies, like the screener copy, claim the film is presented in full screen, so be forewarned.

The cinematography matches well with the tone of the film—indoor shots are muted with washed-out grays and blues, soft but rich colors. Outdoor shots are soft but vibrant, with glowing reds and greens. The quality of the transfer is clear and well defined, with a minimum of noticeable artifacts or film degradation. It does looks good, considering its made-for-TV roots.

Occasionally, the audio becomes slightly muddled, though this is no direct fault of the mixing process itself. More than likely, this is due to the characters often speaking in hushed and whispered tones. At a neutral level of front and rear balance, you find yourself occasionally straining to hear the dialogue from the center and front channels over the ambient noises in the rear. As a whole, though, the audio is acceptable and suitable for the presentation.

Extras include an audio commentary by director Lawrence Schiller, who constantly reminds the viewer of his journalistic credentials and name drops quite a lot. Also included is a small behind-the-scenes featurette with director and screenwriter interviews, explaining the arduous task in creating drama surrounding such a contradictory character. Both are unimpressive, pedantic and offer very little of interest.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

As a dramatic work, the film is not a very good one. The script gets bogged down in Hanssen's internal monologues that speak profoundly to the irrelevance of the film as a whole. The preachy, sociopolitical commentary becomes obnoxious and adds little to the experience as a whole. Fact: we do not feel sorry for the guy—attempting to play off the anxieties of the modern political realities is a slightly underhanded method to inspire sympathy in a character that is essentially, a stiff.

Example: Hanssen insists, in the 1980s, that China will be a greater threat to the stability of America than the Soviets will ever be, in the future—that America has one game plan, one defensive play—against the Russians—and this flaw leaves the country open to attack from the rear. "If any country does ever beat us," Hanssen says, "it won't be with nukes. It'll be with cunning…and simplicity…less sophistication than our defenses."

Are we offered these sanctimonious observations as paltry explanation to the motivations of a self-righteous nerd? I question the relevance.

Also, I cannot imagine seeing the four-hour version of this story on TV, or the six-hour version that the original draft of the movie was penned—two hours is more than you would care to stand. Trust me.

Closing Statement

Ultimately, the film does succeed in presenting Hanssen as a fiercely devout, sharp, intelligent, and motivated man, but far too effectively—as a sympathetic subject, he is far too arrogant and narcissistic to feel sorry for; as a tragic hero, he is too pompous and overbearing. He plays both governments against each other as an exercise in his own ego, as an outlet for his frustrations at not being appreciated and recognized.

One simply cannot care for a man whose motivations are so obnoxious, and therefore, there is no pathos. The only emotion inspired in the entire film is a warm feeling of self-righteousness when Hanssen, the smug schmuck, gets his comeuppance.

The Verdict

The film is found in contempt of court.

The court is in recess for lunch. Bad psychological profiles make me hungry.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 80
Audio: 70
Extras: 30
Acting: 65
Story: 55
Judgment: 60

Perp Profile

Studio: Fox
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
• English
• Spanish
Running Time: 122 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Drama
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• Director's Commentary
• Deleted Scenes
• Behind-the-Scenes Featurette


• IMDb
• Official Site (CBS)

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Review content copyright © 2003 Adam Arseneau; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.