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'Master Spy' leaves viewers in the dark:

Sunday, November 10, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Who knew a spy yarn could be such a bore?

CBS's "Master Spy: The Robert Hanssen Story" (9 tonight and next Sunday) compliments the personality of the man it portrays. Even the stripper Hanssen buys gifts for declares, "He doesn't love me, he loves boredom."


"Master Spy: The Robert Hanssen Story"

When: 9 tonight and next Sunday on CBS.

Starring: William Hurt, Mary-Louise Parker.

Based on the book by Lawrence Schiller, who directs the mini- series from a script by Norman Mailer ("The Executioner's Song," CBS's O.J. Simpson mini- series "American Tragedy"), "Master Spy" is the true-life story of Hanssen (William Hurt), a 25-year veteran of the FBI who was arrested and charged with espionage in February 2001.

"Master Spy" should be more intriguing, especially to me. I'm a native of Vienna, Va., where the Hanssens lived. A good friend from high school grew up living in the home next door to Hanssen. I've been to one of the two parks named in the miniseries (the art department gets an A+ for accurately re-creating Fairfax County park signage). But slogging through all four hours of "Master Spy" felt more like a sentence than an assignment.

Fans of Sahara-desert dry psychological drama might be intrigued by all of Hanssen's contradictions, but the miniseries is only able to hint at the reasons for them.

Hurt plays Hanssen as a humorless, staring-into-space loon. The reason for his psychologically knotty personality is laid squarely at the feet of his father (Peter Boyle), who treats him horribly, calling his son a "No. 1 certified loser" on his wedding day. But there are many emotionally abusive fathers in this world, and that seems like too easy an out.

Other possible reasons for his spying: A need for money that the KGB provides for selling out America's secrets and a superiority complex Hanssen lords over his FBI colleagues.

The bureau itself comes off looking pretty poor in the miniseries, with agents routinely depicted as lazy layabouts.

"Bob, you're too ambitious," says one. "Learn how little you can do."

"I'm choking with disgust," Hanssen thinks in response as part of an interior monologue that runs throughout the miniseries.

That motivation makes more sense, at least to anyone with a strong work ethic. Aside from his treasonous acts, Hanssen appears to be a smart, contemplative investigator. A conversation he has in 1990 seems eerily prescient, albeit a little gratuitous in this miniseries.

"If any country ever does beat us, it won't be with nukes," he says. "It will be with cunning and simplicity and less sophistication than our own defenses."

Other aspects of Hanssen's life evince nut-so hypocrisy. For a guy who scolds a dinner guest for mentioning "full frontal nudity" at the dinner table, he has an utterly bizarre relationship with his friend, Jack Hoschouer (David Strathairn).

Hanssen takes pictures of his naked wife, Bonnie (Mary-Louise Parker), and shares them with Hoschouer on a regular basis over the course of 30 years. Viewers will see bare breasts in one of the photos in tonight's installment, which is rated TV-MA (mature for innuendo, language and violence).

After scolding an FBI colleague for going to a strip club, Hanssen befriends a stripper, takes her with him to Hong Kong and buys her a car. It's an attempt to convert her to Catholicism, to save her, and he never sleeps with her, but the interior monologues suggest he's tempted.

"You'd like to convert me to the church, I'd like to convert you to a human being," she tells him.

Hanssen's monologues bog down the story. They're necessary for getting inside the character's head, but viewers still won't understand what makes Hanssen tick. That's probably the point, but it's not entertaining and only a little intriguing psychologically.

Hurt plays Hanssen as uncharismatic and socially awkward, which may be accurate, but it's not enjoyable to watch. Parker is less grating and monotone than she is on "The West Wing," but her normally nasal voice is made more annoying by a Chicago accent that renders "Bob" as "Bab."

Someday someone may make a compelling movie out of the Hanssen story, but "Master Spy" isn't it.

You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 orrowen@post-gazette.com . Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.


"Master Spy: The Robert Hanssen Story"

When: 9 tonight and next Sunday on CBS.

Starring: William Hurt, Mary-Louise Parker.

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