Writer Norman Mailer and director Lawrence Schiller can’t get enough of the nation’s most intriguing criminals. Best known for the critically acclaimed Executioner’s Song, the duo are at it again with this CBS mini-series spruced up to an R rating for DVD.
To anyone who has seen the 60 Minutes piece or kept up with the story in their local paper, the story is familiar enough. Robert Hanssen spied for the Soviet Union for 22 years while a top level FBI agent. William Hurt delivers a rather deadpan performance as Hanssen, a man rife with contradictions. An obsessively devout Catholic who secretly shares pictures and videos of his naked wife with his best friend, Hanssen has little moral trouble with providing information that costs other men their lives. Better performances are turned in by Ron Silver and Mar Louise Parker who plays Hanssen’s wife. Wayne Knight sheds his “knucklehead” persona for a solid performance as an FBI colleague of Hanssen’s. You’ll find this cut of the film contains some nudity not shown on the CBS broadcast version.
Master Spy contains a Dolby Digital 2.0 track that is pretty typical for a made for TV film. Dialogue is the most important element here. It comes through clear and concise at all times. While not dynamic, the sound is consistent.
There is an audio commentary by director Lawrence Schiller. He gets quite involved with the story. You’ll hear tons of background information on the case. He is also very diligent in providing his sources of information for what you see on the screen. It is obvious Schiller studied the case thoroughly.
The DVD box reports that Master Spy is presented in a Full Frame format, which is what one might expect from a television movie. A pleasant surprise, however, is to be found when you actually view the film. It is presented in a 1.78:1 wide screen aspect ratio. You’ll get a very clean image that displays absolutely no grain or film artifacts whatever. Colors are a bit washed at times, but much of that is attributable to Schiller’s stylization. Blacks are relatively deep. The layer change is quite an obvious one.
This is an impressive release for a television film. Not only do we get an in-depth commentary and a wide screen format, but we are treated to about a dozen deleted scenes with optional commentary. A short Behind the Scenes feature is mostly interviews with Schiller and what appears to be an older interview with an aged Mailer.
This may not be a great film, but it is actually pretty good. You’ll find the many 80’s references amusing (Rubik’s cube and 5 ¼ floppy discs). The many moments we go inside of Hanssen’s mind can get tiresome. The film is at times over-long. I’d recommend it as a rental or even a purchase if you can find it used or on sale somewhere. While the additional nudity doesn’t really advance the story, “It’s just something for the fellas, that’s all”.