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You can't trust divinity students. They have thought a lot about ethics, you see, and they sometimes hold themselves to a higher standard that the rest of us. You don't know if you're being judged. The least trustworthy is a lapsed divinity student, who goes into the outside world unprepared to look the other way when he sees wrongdoing or hypocrisy. Now make that lapsed divinity student a pampered son of a well-to-do security executive for a massive global technological corporation charged with helping the country conduct its secret business. Put him in a situation where he feels personally responsible for the country's political crimes. He's not some kid who doesn't give a damn. What do you expect him to do?
The fascinating The Falcon and the Snowman is the true story of Christopher Boyce (Timothy Hutton) and Daulton Lee (Sean Penn), a pair of genuine traitors that together form a perfect portrait of 1970s affluent decadence, Southern California style. Steve Zaillian's screenplay and John Schlesinger's direction somehow retain the whole scope of the facts while framing everything in a socially responsible context. Daulton sold out to the drug trade and Christopher went into daddy's line of work while maintaining a big anti-government chip on his shoulder. The disorganized and thoughtless way they went about their 'business' makes them amateur spies, thoughtless traitors and tragic fools.
Boyce and Lee are difficult young men to impress; they're both still tied to their parents and the cozy hilltop homes with the buffet breakfasts and servants. Lee is neck deep in drug running from Mexico, and going about it in a way that all but guarantees he'll soon be imprisoned. Chris follows the line of least resistance and takes a job offered by a friend of his father. The old boys network then promotes him into a highly sensitive 'black vault' communications center, where the company (TRW but given a different name) routes secret satellite communications for the C.I.A.. Chris works with codebooks and authorization procedures. The vault room is so secret that nobody else ever enters. He and his two colleagues mix drinks and party every afternoon. As part of his security agreement Chris can discuss nothing of what he sees, but he keeps seeing un-coded telexes sent to him by mistake. They show that the C.I.A. is undermining elections in Australia to defeat pro-Union candidates. This is exactly what was done in Chile several years before, and this time he's a witness to it, and holding the evidence.
Chris betrays his sworn oath and tells all to Daulton, who by now is an outright outlaw wanted on drug charges. For all the wrong reasons Daulton ends up approaching the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City with some sensitive papers stolen by Chris. The Russian agent Alex (David Suchet) is receptive and has a lot of questions. But dealing with international espionage agents isn't the same as making drug deals. Daulton is outclassed, while Chris continues feeding him information more as rebellion against the system (and his father) than for any logical reason. Daulton's drug use robs him of his judgment and makes him paranoid. His reckless actions guarantee that they'll both be caught.
The Falcon and the Snowman is a harrowing, fascinating experience and one of John Schlesinger's best films. It's special in that it refrains from making Boyce and Lee traitorous villains or rebellious heroes; either way they're just deluded fools. Committed conscientious protester-rebels dig up or even steal secret information and make it public; if we believe in our country we're supposed to honor men that uncover its crimes. Although Daulton Lee is the loose cannon in the equation, Chris Boyce is the real danger. Daulton tells him to 'make it all public' but Chris is completely cynical. He expresses his 'morally advanced' rebellion against Dad, TRW and our tarnished flag by selling the info to the Soviet Union? Daulton knows what's right and wrong, but his cozy So Cal upbringing hasn't given him much of a backbone either. Those secret telexes can be exchanged for hard cash, and if he promises the Russkies stuff Chris can't even provide, maybe they'll pay more.
Sean Penn's acting in this very tough role is the best thing in the movie. Daulton Lee thinks he can outsmart everyone but doesn't understand that others can see through him; it's pathetic to see him try to get the upper hand with Alex, or convince his disappointed parents that he's working for the C.I.A. Professional espionage agents expect eccentrics, but the Russians must have been flabbergasted by this doper clown. Penn's paranoid meltdown, accusing Chris of selling him out, is just tragic. Yet to protect Chris, Daulton volunteers to face the Russians alone. He's a good buddy unless he thinks he's being cheated out of money. The look on the Russians' faces when he tries to get them to smuggle drugs with him is priceless. It's the 100% fair flip side of Costa-Gavras' film Missing, in which C.I.A. agents deceive American citizens in Chile. When Daulton is arrested on a charge of political assassination, the American consul goes to great lengths to help him. 1
I think that Schlesinger goes a little easy on Chris Boyce. There must be more to it all, expressed in the book. A fellow would have to be very arrogant or very blind to rebel in this particular way. The Chris we see clearly cares, yet his actions are like those of a kid who burns his house down just to get attention. Boy, dad's really going to blow up over this one. I'll show him. Later on Chris suffers like he's God's Lonely Man, unable to escape to Rio and having to tell his girlfriend that the jig is up, just like Paul Muni in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang except without the maddened expression. Chris' sessions with Alex the Red in Mexico City are different than Daulton's. Alex isn't going to betray Chris, a possible connection who may someday again want to be a sleeper agent. It's Daulton that goes bananas and ruins everything.
Schlesinger's casting decisions were never better. Dorian Harewood as a right-wing co-worker? Excellent. Joyce Van Patten and Priscilla Pointer are the mothers ignorant of their husbands' business life, and barely allowed to participate in family decisions. Pat Hingle, Richard Dysart, Stanley Grover are perfect incarnations of good men and strong fathers, that are nevertheless belligerently inflexible. The way the guy who hires Chris huffs and puffs as he dominates his subordinates, is pure old-school bullying that surely inspired much of my generation to rebel.
David Suchet's Russian contact is a slick customer, able to string Daulton along even as he patronizes him. Someone made the brilliant choice of Michael Ironside as an F.B.I. man -- the actor just simmers with authoritarian rage. Guys like that scared us '50s kids into keeping our mouths shut during the Nixon years. Of minor note is Marvin J. McIntyre, as Daulton's most successful drug mule. McIntyre burst forth in Kevin Reynolds' dynamite short film Proof back in 1980, playing a spaced-out parachute school instructor. You'll find him in a lot of good movies.
The Falcon and the Snowman affair should have put the intelligence services and private security contractors on notice, but I'm sure it did not. Hiring probably still happens through the Good Old Boy network, where irate dads think that slipping their progeny into serious jobs will straighten them out. (What was Chris being paid, $140 a week to start? I got more than that sweeping floors for Doug Trumbull, non-union). Real security is a joke, and when it's all over the Old Boys circle the wagons by offering to help get Chris off the hook. Dad (Pat Hingle, a great performance) says no, it wouldn't be right to do that. The question is, who does Papa Boyce blame, himself or his son? How poisonous was their relationship? God bless sons that get along well with their fathers. 2
A trip to Wikipedia will give readers the basic facts on the Falcon and Snowman case... after long terms including a breakout and some armed robberies (?) (???) both Boyce and Lee are now free men, hopefully doing well. Another chill factor in this show is knowing that these guys, roughly my age and working in the same city, spent a big chunk of their lifetimes in prison, while the rest of us have lived, worked, raised families, and thought about the choices we made. I ran into plenty of crooks of various kinds in that time, and I'm glad that I wasn't tempted. But what if conditions were different, and I met a really charismatic crook, or I was carried away by greed? Watching The Falcon and the Snowmanis like playing a scary 'what if' game.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Falcon and the Snowman is in great shape on HD; with a transfer that captures cinematographer Allen Daviau's sun-soaked images on the beach. Venice, California was not a cheap place to have a penthouse apartment even in 1977. By contrast Daulton looks totally lost in Mexico City, and unaware that he might as well be toting a neon sign with the words, "Up To No Good, Here." The dark recesses of the Russian Embassy, with its rich wood, only make Alex and his superior seem more in control, more in authority over Daulton the punk. The few shots I saw dirt on may have been stock material or optical dupes -- shots of Chris's falcon flying, etc.
The audio is mixed very clearly. The film's music score is sparse and a David Bowie song hovers over the end credits, unfortunately reminding us that little or no music from the period is heard. Schlesinger sets the stage with an opening montage featuring video clips of the American scandals that presumably formed Christopher Boyd's political attitude. Although the movie never harps on similar topics again, those issues are the ideological blocks that separate Chris from his father, the patriot and company man who helps it all happen.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Actually, the episode where the Mexican cops accuse Daulton as an assassin is kind of hilarious, and even appropriate. Daulton is so f___ed up that he can't put his 'X's on the right street corners; he apparently carries a postcard of the Hall of Beautiful Arts because he can't be sure he'll remember what his rendezvous building looks like. He brags about selling secrets to impress girls at parties.
Is the American consul really helping Daulton, though, or is she working with the cops? Her appearance at the Russian gates is an awfully big coincidence. And the killer accusation is so generic that one would think its real purpose is to frighten Daulton into confessing what he's really up to.
Or are we supposed to be smart enough to draw that conclusion on our own? Savant is disqualifying himself from spy duty.
2. A good friend worked for TRW a couple of years after these events. Not only did he and his fellow employees receive extra training and guidance about security issues and the meaning of the secrecy vouchers they signed, Chris Boyce's actual father came in to lecture them about what happened. Note: That's all I know about this!
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T'was Ever Thus.