A psychological drama that fails to haunt, intrigue or even repel its audience, “Master Spy” is a slowly told, drawn-out examination of an FBI agent who fights the demons of his upbringing, Catholicism and unbearable financial debt. Robert Hanssen’s story of how he came to sell FBI documents to the KGB is more background than plot as scribe Norman Mailer and director Lawrence Schiller stick with the double spy’s family life as the crux of this four-hour mini. William Hurt delivers a consistent performance as the droll, slightly base Hanssen and Mary-Louise Parker is excellent at living within the skin of his devoutly Catholic wife, Bonnie. Over four hours covering 33 years, we see little change in the Hanssens — their dedication to each other never wavers, they maintain traditional roles in the home and religion is their big fallback.
Mailer’s vision of Hanssen is a man who addresses life, facing himself in the mirror and issuing declarative sentences that define his being. “I love order.” “I live in a land of … exquisite privacy.” “There’s no way out.” “I’m so guilty all my life.” It’s an odd personality trait — a throwback to Steve McQueen “getting his mind right” in “The Great Escape” — and fortunately does have a keen payoff at the show’s conclusion when he ascribes qualities of a confessional to his prison cell.
This may be the first spy pic with absolutely no implicit danger. Hurt plays Hanssen as cool as a cucumber, and his behavior — or at least what we see — is all about not raising suspicion. For a guy who complains about backstabbers and less intelligent types blocking his career path, we never see him encounter them. In fact, we don’t see him dealing with the Soviets; only because he always has money to spend can we assume he’s delivering top-secret documents up until the time of his arrest.
It’s a tedious first half, watching Hanssen rise through the ranks at the FBI, forcing his family to move around the country — Gary, Ind.; New York; D.C. — all the while driving a deep rift between the Hanssens and Robert’s father, Howard (Peter Boyle).
Robert likes taking photos of his wife in topless and erotic poses and then sending the photos to his buddy Jack (David Strathairn), a lifer in the Army. It’s Robert’s one peccadillo — letting Jack in on intimate details and arousing him without Bonnie ever knowing. It eventually means Jack will watch the Hanssens make love — broadcast live from the bedroom to the family room.
Having made their way to New York in 1979, the Hanssens find themselves $10,000 in debt; rather than ask Howard to once again foot a few bills, Robert sells some papers to the Russians. He shrugs it off to Bonnie as inconsequential documents and the subject is never again broached in the Hanssen household.
Six years later, Hanssen is again frustrated by his lack of movement in the bureau, even though he’s now in D.C. reporting to Mike Fine, played by Ron Silver as hesitant and calm as his underling. In the nation’s capital, he has greater access to more important documents — how and where the government would set up should the Soviets launch a nuclear attack — and is able to up his price, asking $100,000 for his goods. He creates a pseudonym as well: Ramon Garcia.
Part one ends with Hanssen lecturing co-worker Walter Ballou (Wayne Knight) about the evil of — and then he decides to check out — a strip club, where he meets dancer Priscilla Galey (Hilit Pace), who soon becomes his confidant and companion. Odd thing is, their relationship is not sexual — and it leads to her downfall as she ends up not knowing where or how to fit in his life.
Her role in part two bolsters the mini and we see Hanssen in a variety of settings, from church to greeting KGB officials in the FBI’s hallway after the fall of the Soviet Union. It didn’t require an entire two-hour episode to get to know Hanssen, and perhaps his low-key personality would be far easier to accept in a shorter, one-night version. The character’s reactions are what’s interesting here, as there are no action sequences nor any personalities that take command of the screen.
Thesps playing the women in Hanssen’s life, Pace and Parker, turn in the sharpest performances. Parker’s devotion to God and family is palpable and she possess the radiance that Hanssen professes she has; her beauty never obfuscates her maternal look or demeanor. As her antithesis, Pace is a wanting soul brimming with sexuality, ready and willing to go along for the ride — until their relationship puts the spy guy in a savior role. We don’t get to see enough of her decline nor any response he may have had that was less than calculated.
As the agent poised to be the bureau’s best, Knight’s Walter isn’t a big enough of a role for the actor to dive into and remove the shackles of his Newman days on “Seinfeld.” Ditto Boyle, who’s less-than-benevolent father hails humorlessly straight from “Everybody Love Raymond.”
Strathairn is about the only male who gets to play an emotion beyond understated surprise, as Jack’s never sure what’s up Hanssen’s sleeve — a request for a transfer to the FBI or an invite to see Bonnie in the shower. Strathairn strikes a good balance between being creeped out and supportive as a friend, though his role fizzles at the end when a more emotional response to Hanssen’s arrest would be expected.
Schiller’s direction shies from anything too emotional or taxing. Mailer’s script should have made a subtext stronger, whether it be good vs. evil, how good people turn evil or how an evil upbringing, no matter how much you block it out, allows evil to inform a good person’s decisions.
CBS supplied rough cuts of the miniseries that included scenes with exposed breasts and swearing but no final music or dialogue.