Beware of gifts that bare geeks.
That's exactly what the CBS two-part movie "Master Spy: The Robert Hanssen Story" is, the present that nobody needed to receive. It's a two-Sunday (beginning at 9 p.m. tomorrow) ordeal by intimacy: You learn too much, by far, about an unsavory, self-deluded monster, the notorious FBI counterespionage executive who found a prosperous part-time job working as a spy for the Russians.
Watching the film is something like coming home from a trip to learn that the power was turned off two weeks ago -- and then opening the refrigerator. What you get is a whiff of biological truth about the impact of bacteria in a closed, feverish ecosystem, but you probably won't notice as you puke up lunch.
The film was directed, just barely, by Lawrence Schiller, who is a kind of multimedia impresario of atrocity. He flies to places when the baddest of news breaks, puts some money down and ties up exclusive rights. Then his pal, the former great novelist turned TV hack Norman Mailer, cranks out material in a variety of forms. They first ran this drill years back on the Gary Gilmore saga, another journey through male squalor, which resulted in "The Executioner's Song," both book and TV movie. They've done a subsequent treatment of O.J. Simpson.
So by this time, they know what they are doing and they do it almost too well. The result is four hours in clammy intimacy with a creep so appalling he makes a simple psycho gunman like Gilmore seem positively humanitarian. It doesn't help that William Hurt plays Hanssen as if he were taking direction not from Schiller but from Dostoevski. He's a wounded figure so pathetic and repugnant, so full of self-loathing, so twitchy and fragile and repulsive that it never seems credible that he flourished in a culture as conformist as the FBI's.
The most damaging stroke is a conceit by which Hurt's Hanssen has regular meetings with himself in the mirror. As a way of getting exposition into the story line and presenting a postcard of the man's mind-set at that moment in the saga, it's certainly efficient, if overly theatrical. But at the same time, it makes him entirely too self-aware, too much a Hamlet and not enough a Benedict Arnold. If he had doubts this large and fears this all-consuming, how could he get away so easily with his decades-long deception?
And of course the whole rickety apparatus is based on a dubious assumption. Beyond satisfying our morbid curiosity about what this guy did and how he was caught, it presumes that an answer to the deeper question may be found. That is, given that Hanssen's motivation wasn't political, why? The responses it comes up with are fairly standard -- the pain of a father's psychological abuse, a sense of exile from the community, a need for money, and a set of rogue sexual impulses that contributed deep feelings of unworthiness -- and they really don't answer a thing. A million men suffered the same, or worse, and went on to become productive citizens, good fathers, patriots, heroes even. There's really no explaining a Hanssen any more than there is a Gilmore, other than by unfashionable theories of evil.
In other words, "Master Spy: The Robert Hanssen Story" is the very model of modern biography, so clotted with psychological rationalization and promiscuously inappropriate empathy that simple issues of good and bad are crowded out. When at last he is undone, one cannot even experience a sense of justice triumphant; rather, it feels as if the man's self-administered therapy is simply moving into a new stage, and the chances of reconciling his conflicting feelings have never been higher. It seems frightened of judgment.
The movie opens on the happiest day of young-old Hanssen's life. I say "young-old" to suggest one of the awkwardnesses to the film: When the 52-year-old Hurt plays the very young Chicago dental student with some hair amplification but no modification to jowls, sags and fissures, the result is somewhat absurd. The same is true of David Straithairn as the young man's best pal, an Army officer named Jack Hoschouer. Old guys as young guys -- it never works.
In any event, Bob is just about to marry Bonnie Wauck (Mary-Louise Parker) and the movie wastes no time in laying its cards out. She is beautiful, and he is not. He feels utterly unworthy of her -- a theme that will haunt him -- and at the same time feels an anger toward her that he expresses in weird ways: He understands that other men, particularly the not-so-bright Jack, are intensely drawn to her. Thus he begins what will be the paradigm of his adulthood, in relationships intimate and public: formal worship, secret betrayal. He loves to tease Jack with the nude pix he has snapped of Bonnie, who is simply incapable of conceiving such treachery. At one time, he rigs up some FBI counterspy camera gizmos so that he can torment the visiting Jack by broadcasting his own lovemaking sessions.
At the wedding, Bob's most pernicious demon immediately asserts himself. This is his father, Howard (played at maximum predatory leer by Peter Boyle), a tough old Chicago cop who is so unimpressed with his son he can't keep from tearing the young man apart at every opportunity. His wedding day would seem to be an unfortunate selection of dates to tell the world what a loser your kid is, but that doesn't stop Howard from informing all and sundry of Bob's numerous faults.
By the rules of human perversity, it seems that the one way to make a kid love you is to torment him. Thus Bob quits dental school, opting instead for his father's life as an upholder of the law, and is accepted into the FBI. Diligent, intelligent but hardly charismatic, he labors through the vineyards, coming to rest in counterintelligence, which leads him to his first bad break: an assignment to the New York office, where the high cost of living nearly bankrupts the young agent who, as an enthusiastic, recently converted Catholic, is happily filling the world with young Hanssens (six in all), whom he can't afford. Thus his first dabble in espionage for money.
The movie chronicles all forms of his seediness as his career progresses. Treachery becomes a habit, and the extra money contributes to a lifestyle of upscale showiness -- particularly that fine bespoke house in the Virginia suburbs -- that finally convinces his doubting Howard of a father that the kid is all right. So in that sense, Hanssen's life is a success: He proved himself to his father, who then obligingly died before the truth blundered out.
His sexual life continued to twist in odd directions. A member of an extremely anti-communist Catholic society, an outspoken cultural conservative, an exemplar of suburban family values, he nevertheless put together a baffling relationship with a stripper, Priscilla Galey (Hilit Pace), showering her with expensive gifts, stealing away to exotic cities with her. But, weirdly, it remained a chaste relationship. Again, is this not by some standard a kind of passive-aggressive betrayal? He wanted to be with her, but not with her. In this highly unlikely situation, you see the two sides of him in naked conflict.
But if the film makes a case for the squalor of Hanssen's inner life, it makes an equally convincing case for the brilliance of his outer life. Never a star, he was still able to rise in the bureau's counterespionage hierarchy while designing an airtight technique in his dealings with the Russians.
At no time did they know the identity of the mole Ramon (his self-given nom de guerre). He never met with them, he didn't become a part of their culture, he wasn't part of a network, he didn't respond to orders. He couldn't be ratted out by men who didn't know who he was. He simply made selected gifts to them via "dead drop," and received his payback by dead drop. They were as much in the dark about his identity as were the American authorities who knew of the existence of a mole but had no clue to his identity. Moreover, he was able to track the bureau's hunt for him via its own computer system, so he knew all along how undiscovered he was for so many years. You have to say that as badly as he wanted to succeed, Robert Hanssen did so: He became a terrific traitor.
The deception was only ended by the fall of the Soviet empire, when key documents from KGB files were turned over to the Americans, including a plastic garbage bag that had lain in Kremlin vaults for 15 years and soon yielded the only necessary clue: Hanssen's fingerprints.
So in one sense Hanssen's brilliance undermines the melodrama of "Master Spy"; there is never a spy hunt, like the one that animated John Le Carre's brilliant "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" and its dramatization, because Hanssen was so far ahead of the game. He was caught only because the game was called on account of the collapse of communism. There's no Javert, no Smiley, no spy-hunter who represents our national and cultural interests. There's only this twisted perv, brought low by the winds of change and chance.