The Falcon and the Snowman
I suspect, if I hadn’t been ignorant of the story of Christopher Boyce and Andrew Daulton Lee selling secrets to the Soviets during the ’70s, I’d have found The Falcon and the Snowman less engaging than I did. Which is to say that John Schlesinger’s film has all the right ingredients to be riveting, including a particularly camera-hogging performance from Sean Penn (as Lee), but it’s curiously lacking in narrative drive. Only fitfully does it channel the motives of its protagonists and their ensuing paranoia. As such, the movie makes a decent primer on the case, but I ended up wondering if it might not be ideal fodder for retelling as a miniseries.
Boyce leaves a seminary, and a prospective career in the priesthood, in the opening scene, which might be an early cue that he’s prone to question and find dissatisfying any authoritarian system (he doesn’t get on with his ex-FBI father either, played by Pat Hingle: “Once FBI, always FBI. He’s alright” comments Boyce’s new colleague Gene (Dorian Harewood) on meeting dad). Dad gets him a job with a civilian defence contractor, and Chris ends up working the Black Vault, an unofficial communications centre for surveillance satellites. There, he routes communiques, including regularly mis-sent ones bound for CIA Langley that include “details of CIA covert action that have nothing to do with national security”.
More specifically, the activity that gets Boyce’s goat is the revelation that the CIA plans to oust the Australian Prime Minister Whitham, who has made clear his country won’t be a stooge for the US and UK and has even – unforgivably – questioned the appropriateness of the CIA presence at Pine Gap. Steven Zaillian’s screenplay (his first produced, adapted from Robert Lindsay’s book) doesn’t go into that much detail concerning Whitham; that’s another reason, since this side of the story is fascinating, that a broader, interweaving adaption might be illuminating (another Stephen – Gaghan – might be the one to deliver on such an approach).
So Boyce sets Lee, childhood friend and fellow altar boy, and now a rather weasely drug dealer, as the go-between with the Russian Embassy in Mexico (represented by a terrific David Suchet, as Alex; you can feel him oozing quiet intolerance for this dishevelled, impossible, undisciplined Yank).
Part of the problem with The Falcon and the Snowman is that you never quite feel Schlesinger is engaging with its themes. He spends a great deal of time on Lee (apparently, the director and star’s relationship grew steadily worse over the course of the shoot), who has no moral compass and whose motivation is entirely pecuniary (when it isn’t substance-related); Boyce ends up getting short shrift as a consequence. Penn’s performance is something else, of course, and nothing if not entertaining, with a physical transformation as noteworthy as his other drug-fuelled diversion in Carlito’s Way nearly a decade later.
Schlesinger said “It’s not so much what they did as why that interests me. Without condoning their actions, we explore what was going on in their heads –and in the world around – in the early seventies”. But as Pauline Kael, in a customarily scathing review, noted, he doesn’t really reach his goal (although, Kael suggests “Schlesinger wants to shock the hell out of us by justifying Boyce’s actions”. I don’t think he does; if he did, he’d provide far more than the detail we’re granted in a couple of brief exchanges). At least, not for Boyce. Lee’s an open book.
Kael really didn’t like Penn’s turn, comparing unflatteringly to “Rupert Pupkin’s little brother”, and going on to label it “an embarrassment – the kind of fanatic actor’s performance that’s obvious and empty in a way that’s bound to be compared admiringly to De Niro’s run of bum work”. I’d certainly agree Penn’s hamming it up, but that’s exactly what Lee’s self-aggrandising cokehead needs. As such, far from being a “self-conscious catastrophe” his approach almost entirely fits the role, such that exactly the effect she describes of his scenes with Suchet (and Boris Leskin) – they “seem to be the only ones who know what they’re doing, the only sane and responsible people in the movie” – is surely the intended one.
But the knock on of Penn’s performance is that you have no absolutely no idea why Boyce trusts him. Equipped with zero insight into their relationship before Lee was a druggie, it’s difficult to construe any depth to their friendship. Lee has the bravado, Boyce the shrewdness, but there’s no meeting of minds. Initially, Lee suggests making the information public:
Boyce: No, no, no. You can’t get any more public than what happened in Chile. People still don’t believe we engineered that.
Lee: He was a socialist.
Boyce: He was elected.
We’re only privy to Boyce’s thoughts on a couple of occasions, which would be fine if Schlesinger communicated them by other means. Unfortunately, he seems more concerned with the (admittedly fine) falcon flying sequences and (entirely redundant) relationship with Lori Singer’s Lana. We’re left scrambling around for nuggets. If the idea was that Boyce wasn’t really sure why he was doing it, that would have been entirely legitimate. Instead, we move rapidly from surprise that the plan is actually going ahead, to disillusionment with his contacts (“They’re just as paranoid and dangerous as we are. I can’t imagine why I thought they’d be any different”), to setting out his now solidified grand perspective:
FBI Interrogator: Who did you receive your instructions from?
Boyce: My conscience… I know a few things about predatory behaviour. What was once a legitimate intelligence gathering agency is now being misused to prey on weaker governments.
When Hutton’s giving us Boyce the observer (watching Gene’s rant at a drinks evening, disagreeing with everything he’s saying but keeping it to himself), or Boyce the stoic (in the final scenes when he’s arrested, and then the calm demeanour of his interview), or dealing with the arrival of the CIA inspector, or his assuredness when meeting with Alex, you get an insight into his character, but they’re inconsistent moments. Time Out’s Chris Peachment suggested “Hutton succumbs firstly to a thin role, and secondly to the film’s lack of any strong viewpoint about its leading men”. Hutton’s performance is solid (now he’s a freemason, he probably doesn’t identify so strongly with his anti-establishment character), so the extent to which Boyce is overly enigmatic is down to his director rather than performance.
Nevertheless, while I can readily see something of the deficiencies of The Falcon and the Snowman, I wouldn’t characterise it as a “thuddingly emphatic, elaborately edited mosaic” or even that “the performances begin to look like exercises in making bricks without much straw” (The Film Yearbook Volume 4). There are definite problems, not least a frequently ineffectual and inappropriate score (although Bowie’s This is Not America, the main reason I was aware of the film, despite never having managed to see it until now, adds an appropriately haunted note whenever it fades in). I wondered if some material didn’t end up on the cutting room floor (Michael Ironside has one scene as an FBI guy), but to be glass half full about it, this is at least a half-decent movie.
Nevertheless, there are a number of ways The Falcon and the Snowman might have been made wholly decent. Certainly, the question of whose actions were more wrong – the state, or the individual who chose to respond to the state’s corruption – would be better serviced by an aforementioned broader canvas (because, ultimately, it isn’t just about what they did, but also the machinations of the system they did it against).
It would help to have a filmmaker with a clear point of view too, be that polemical (Oliver Stone in his prime, maybe) or a chillier, docu-drama approach (à la Alan J Pakula). Kael served Schlesinger the stinging rebuke, “It’s his failure to be involved on the simplest level”. Mind you, she ran down Marathon Man in the same breath, which is top-drawer schlock.