The Falcon and the Snowman

December 26, 2011

Timothy Hutton and Sean Penn are the cream of Hollywood’s hot young actors. They didn’t get there through cuteness or pandering or doing the right talk shows; they got there because they’re very good at what they do.

They’re dedicated actors who seem to deliberately eschew the more commercially sensible movies they could make in favor of difficult, challenging projects. Hutton, who took home the best supporting actor Oscar for Ordinary People, has had a couple of box-office duds in a row, Daniel and Iceman, both of which were interesting.

Penn, who enjoys looking completely different from one role to the next, scored in Fast Times in Ridgemont High, delved into the harsh prison world of Bad Boys, then appeared as a more-or-less normal human being in Racing with the Moon.

They became friends on the set of Taps and decided to make a movie together. In The Falcon and the Snowman, they’ve picked out what must be their most commercially risky work yet: it’s the true story of two Americans, Christopher Boyce and Daulton Lee, played by Hutton and Penn respectively. The two sold government secrets to the Soviets (Boyce was captured a couple of years ago near Port Angeles). Hutton and Penn obviously are not worried about appearing unattractive to their audience.

Boyce and Lee are childhood chums (they were altar boys together), sons of wealthy Los Angeles families. Boyce, who owns a falcon (thus his code name), leaves the seminary at the film’s beginning and takes a job where he is exposed to state secrets; Lee is a two-bit drug dealer (and soon-to-be-addict) who spends a lot of time in Mexico.

Boyce gets it into his head that the best way to register disapproval against the immoral behavior of the CIA is to sell information to the Soviets. He enlists Lee as the bagman for the process, and Lee establishes a relationship with the Russian Embassy in Mexico City; he brings them documents and film, they give him money.

This set-up effectively provides suspense, with the amateurish spy efforts of Boyce and Lee rubbing up against the efficient espionage systems of the world’s great superpowers.

While that situation makes the film sufficiently watchable, there are many problems. It’s always hard to cozy up to a film with traitors as its main characters, even though Hutton and Penn are interesting actors. Hutton plays it straight and suggests plenty of anguish (but not a lot of motivation) for his misdeeds; Penn is pretty off-the-wall, with a characterization that resembles, physically and behaviorally, Robert De Niro’s uncouth lout in The Kind of Comedy (when the Russian agents tensely inform him that he’s been transferred to a less conspicuous Mexico City hotel, Penn looks at them blankly and says, “Does it have a swimming pool?”).

Although it gets off to an intriguing start, I liked the film less and less as it went on. British director John Schlesinger, who has long been one of the more overrated figures in world cinema, loves to satirize America (Midnight Cowboy, The Day of the Locust), and he’s up to it again here. In the process, he provides trivializing portraits of the boys’ parents, whose main sin seems to be that they are wealthy.

He also establishes a potentially fascinating environment in Hutton’s top-security job, then lets it dribble away—and let’s not even mention Hutton’s girlfriend (Lori Singer, of Footloose), mere window dressing.

It’s ironic that Schlesinger should blow it so badly, since he’s just come off his most highly regarded work in years: the BBC production An Englishman Abroad, a charming tale in which Alan Bates plays the real-life figure of—yes—a spy who deals secrets to the Soviet Union.

First published in the Herald, January 1985

I don’t sound keen on it here, but I have thought of certain scenes from this movie once in a while, and it has a curiosity value somehow. Hutton and Penn hitting golf balls into the ocean—boys of privilege playing games with things they don’t understand. An Englishman Abroad, though, is wonderful. Weirdly, Penn later (years later) hired the real Daulton Lee to serve as his assistant, after Lee was released from prison.


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