In MASTER SPY: THE ROBERT HANSSEN STORY Academy Award-winning actor William Hurt plays the lead role in this new four-hour, special event mini-series based on the shocking true story of FBI Special Agent Robert P. Hanssen, the recently-convicted master spy who single-handedly created the greatest breach of security in the history of the United States. Robert "Bob" Hanssen was a loving husband, a devoted father of six, a deeply devout Catholic, a passionate anti-Communist, a dedicated FBI agent and, for 22 years, a spy the likes of which the United States has never before seen. The mini-series delves into the mind of a complex, devious and brilliant man who was, in May 2002, convicted of spying for the Soviet Union -- and, later, Russia. It creates an unforgettable portrait of someone so caught up in the struggle with his own demons that he would betray everything he held sacred -- his wife, his family, his religion and his country.
Lawrence Schiller and Norman Mailer, who have collaborated on other projects featuring high profile/controversial real-life people, including the CBS mini-series "American Tragedy" about the O.J. Simpson trial, the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Executioner's Song about Utah murderer Gary Gilmore, and Oswald's Tale about Lee Harvey Oswald, spent nine months researching and investigating the life of Robert Hanssen for this mini-series. Mailer wrote the script and Schiller directed it.
Following the recent trend in television dramas and mini-series, Master Spy is another "ripped from the headlines" story. It's the tale of true-life spy Robert Hanssen (played by Academy Award winner William Hurt). Hanssen, the most infamous spy in US history, was only captured a year ago, in 2001. He sold countless secrets to the Soviet Union, transferring information that the US government thought was completely secure. He was a devoutly religious man, a family man, and (seemingly) a complete and total patriot. So the life of deceit he led sounds as if it would make an incredibly interesting story, right? Add to the mix the fact that this was written by Norman Mailer and you've got yourself all the fixing for a really good mini-series. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Let's start with the main flaw: William Hurt. I know Hurt has skills. He's an accomplished actor that one can usually rely on to mean that, as bad as a story may be, you'll at least get to see some quality acting. Not the case here. I wish I knew Hurt's motivation going into this role. He plays Hanssen so flat that it distracted from the story. I'm a big fan of understated performances, letting the little things about a character speak volumes, but there's a world of difference between understated and just not there. Nothing about Hurt is there. This is a man who was supposedly pushed so far with pressure that he betrays EVERYTHING he holds sacred: his country, his religious beliefs, even his wife. But there's never a hint of turmoil inside this man. It just never makes sense. What makes a man like this take naked pictures of his wife to show to his friends? If he was so against Communism, why would he sell American secrets to the Soviets? Where's the motivation?
Another flaw: the Directing. If you were to just follow the direction, NOTHING HAPPENS. I guess not all of the blame can fall on Hurt's shoulders. He's given nothing to do. This is a man torn between 2 lives, and that duality never plays out within the directing. It was just as if a camera was placed on a tripod and set to run, almost as if no thought went into that part of the process.
The series was not without a few good points. Probably the best one being the always reliable acting of Peter Boyle as Hanssen's father. Much of the story revolves around their relationship, and Boyle actually delivers the goods. I'm of the opinion that TOO MUCH of the story is based here, but at least we get to see some quality acting. Wayne Knight (Newman from Seinfeld shows up and also does an excellent job. The remainder of the cast, including Mary Louise Parker and Ron Silver, do a fine job as well. But peripheral roles acted well cannot save a stinker like this. It's only small moments, times when we get inside the workings of true-life spies and the tension between the CIA and FBI, that the series works. But these moments are never the focus, only filler. It's always a bad sign when the filler is more interesting than the story.
I'm not normally a fan of television mini-series for exactly the reasons this one doesn't work. They never seem to find their focus. The premises are usual well and good, but the deliver falls short. Most of the time it's easy to picture them as a 1 1/2 hour Sunday Night Movie instead of a mini-series. The fat needs to be trimmed, the roles need to be better defined, and the direction needs a firmer hand. Master Spy has not renewed my faith in the mini-series. It, like the man it portrays, feels like a sell-out.
CLICK HERE for the official Master Spy website.
CLICK HERE for the Master Spy trailer.