Why would someone sell top-secret government documents to their country’s enemy? Fame? Money? Disillusionment? With the rise of websites like WikiLeaks, a non-profit organization which publishes secret and classified information, and recent, high-profile American whistleblowers like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, John Schlesinger’s 1985 docudrama The Falcon and the Snowman has become relevant yet again. Based on Robert Lindsey’s best-selling non-fiction book of the same name, the film dramatizes the story of Christopher Boyce (Timothy Hutton) and Andrew Daulton Lee (Sean Penn), two young men who sold classified government information to the Soviet Union during the mid-1970s. Schlesinger’s film attempts to explore the motivation behind their actions in this absorbing drama – one that features riveting performances from its two young lead actors, Timothy Hutton and Sean Penn.
The opening credits play over a montage of quintessential American imagery, like the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders, and pivotal events and people from the 1960s, like the Vietnam War and Martin Luther King, Jr. It takes us through the ‘70s with Richard Nixon, John Lennon and Patty Hearst to show the cultural and political upheaval that occurred in America at that time. It also suggests that these turbulent decades possibly motivated the film’s protagonists to do what they did. Or, at the very least, it established a socio-political climate for their disillusionment in what America had become.
Andrew Daulton Lee is a drug dealer who traffics narcotics across the Mexico/United States border. He’s friends with Christopher Boyce, who quit the seminary and gets a job at RTX, a civilian defense contractor, thanks to his ex-FBI father (Pat Hingle). Boyce is quickly promoted to a top-secret division that involves CIA-controlled spy satellites. On his first day, he meets Gene (Dorian Harewood), a co-worker that uses a paper shredder to make margaritas. Dorian Harewood is excellent as a bitter Vietnam War veteran who believes that the CIA isn’t bold enough in its covert operations, especially when it comes to a leftist prime minister in Australia. Boyce does some digging and finds out that the Australian P.M. opposed to U.S. influence and that the CIA has tried to oust him from power.
Lee is understandably paranoid and unable to trust any of his fellow dealers. He wants Boyce to go into business with him because they have been friends since childhood. Boyce argues that they don’t need the money as they both come from wealthy families to which Lee replies, “He who dies with the most toys, wins.” This rather succinctly summarizes capitalism in a nutshell. One day, Boyce decides not to shred a CIA document with details about covert actions that have nothing to do with national security. He’s disgusted at the level at which is own government manipulates foreign press and political parties to deceive their allies. He always believed that his own government only spied on its enemies and not its friends as well.
Boyce tells Lee who first suggests going to the media, however the former proposes selling the information, which the latter balks at. After getting busted for drugs and facing some serious prison time, Lee has a change of heart and agrees to act as a courier for his friend. While Boyce is largely motivated by disillusionment over his government’s covert practices, Lee is motivated by money and the perverse thrill of being a spy, but is clearly in over his head as evident by the Soviet contacts he meets. The problem is that Lee treats their interactions like a drug deal while they see it very differently. They are much more cautious and serious about what they’re doing.
At one point, Lee even foolishly asks his Russian contacts to help him smuggle heroin from South America. Their expression, when he suggests it, is priceless. The problem is that Lee is reckless and brazenly takes unnecessary risks. His judgment is clouded by the heroin he snorts so Boyce decides to sell the information on his own, which, naturally, complicates the relationship with his friend. Special mention goes out to veteran character actor David Suchet as Penn’s contact at the Russian embassy in Mexico City. He comes across as cordial at first, but once Penn’s character gets sloppier in his methods, Suchet shows just dangerous it is to mess with his Russian official.
Adopting a cheesy, thin mustache and slightly reedy voice that intensifies when he is extremely agitated, which happens a lot as the film progresses, Sean Penn disappears into this role. What’s so impressive is that he did this film fairly early on in his career (with only a handful of film credits) and yet shows quite a command of his abilities. Early on in the film, Lee conveys the confidence of someone who comes from a wealthy background. Maybe he originally became a drug dealer to alleviate the boredom of being rich, but by the time we meet him drugs have become a full-blown lifestyle, one that is increasingly encroaching on his affluent one. Lee goes from being a savvy dealer to a pseudo-savvy spy and finds that they share many of the same skill sets. Penn nails Lee’s cocky swagger and yet still suggests how much he is out of his depth when dealing with his Russian handlers, especially in the scene where they finally tire of his antics. The actor really dazzles towards the end as Lee unravels thanks to huge helpings of drugs and paranoia.
Timothy Hutton is very good as the all-American Boyce who has everything and believes in his country, but there are hints early on that there are cracks beginning to form, like the strained relationship with his father that plays out in a tense scene between the two men, suggesting years of friction. It is fascinating to see how the friendship between Boyce and Lee disintegrates over time as the latter takes advantage of the former, which isn’t helped by his escalating drug habit. Hutton and Penn have good chemistry together and are believable as lifelong friends.
Christopher Boyce and Andrew Daulton Lee were childhood friends from the affluent Los Angeles suburb Palos Verdes and who attended the same elementary school and were fellow altar boys. Boyce was only 22-years-old when his father got him a job as a clerk at TRW, a defense contractor, which built and operated spy satellites. He soon had access to highly classified documents. Boyce stole the documents, gave them to Lee, who then sold them to officials at the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City. In 1977, they were convicted of selling classified documents to the Russians. Boyce was sentenced to 40 years in prison and escaped from the maximum-security facility at Lompoc, California in January 1980, managing to stay free for 19 months before being caught. For his role, Lee was sentenced to life in prison.
Director John Schlesinger was attached to the project early on and guided it through four years of attempts and two studios before it was made. Initially, The Falcon and the Snowman was at 20th Century Fox, going through three screenplays only to be dropped for being too costly to make. Schlesinger said, “It was a problem getting the film started again. A rejected film always has the mark of Cain on it.” Fortunately, producer Gabriel Katzka was able to get financing from Orion Pictures and Hemdale Film Corporation. Schlesinger was able to reduce costs – the budget was a modest $12 million – by shooting most of the film in Mexico with a residential area outside of Mexico City doubling for Boyce and Lee’s Palos Verdes suburb and a Mexican university standing in for the defense company that employs Boyce. According to Schlesinger, “we only had to remove the anti-American graffiti.”
To prepare for the role, Timothy Hutton talked to Boyce regularly by phone and met with him in prison, bringing him a copy of the script. After Boyce read it, the two men went through the entire document all in an attempt to portray the man as accurately as possible. Lee was not a fan of Robert Lindsey’s book as he felt it portrayed him as an antagonist that corrupted Boyce. He was even less thrilled that it was going to be adapted into a film. In preparation for playing Lee, Sean Penn met and talked to him on the phone several times and was impressed with the man. He found that Lee was “no longer a confused kid. He was, in fact, a man of utmost clarity and moral conviction.” Then, Penn began physically transforming himself for the role by getting a set of teeth made and then altering his eyebrows and hair until not even his mother recognized him.
Penn and Schlesinger did not get along too well during film. He felt that the director had a “disregard for the true story,” and didn’t like “the choices I was making physically” for the character. According to Penn, Schlesinger took a “very interesting story about these two guys and turned it into an insert-picture in a lot of ways: too much information, too much Teletype.” During filming, the actor was prone to acting “in the moment, searching for the truth of the scene, rather than its effect,” recalled David Suchet. As a result, Penn and Schlesinger got into several arguments. After two weeks they stopped talking to each other and began communicating through assistants.
The Falcon and the Snowman received mixed reviews from critics with most citing Sean Penn’s standout performance. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and felt that the film “never steps wrong, but it is best when it deals with the relationship between the two young American spies.” The New York Times’ Vincent Canby praised the performances of Hutton and Penn: “Mr. Hutton is quite fine in a role that must remain mysterious. His Boyce seems to be well-meaning but more than a little muddle-headed. Even so, he’s a model of rectitude compared to the loose-talking, heroin-hooked Lee, the biggest, most flamboyant role Mr. Penn has yet done. It’s Mr. Penn who dominates the screen with a performance that, like the film, is arresting in its bizarre details and as col as ice.” Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen praised Penn’s performance: “Sean Penn is more than good in this role: he’s astonishing. With his pathetic little mustache, bad Beatles haircut and wormy bravado, Penn abandons all vanity to give us one of the most unglamorous – but scarily hilarious – portraits of callow youth ever. He may have the greatest range of any actor of his generation, so totally does he disappear into this creep incarnate.”
However, in his review for the Globe and Mail, Jay Scott wrote, “Despite Hutton and Schlesinger, The Falcon and the Snowman does tell a terrific story, and the tale is sufficient to hold interest right up to the mishandled ending. The film is being subtitled ‘a true story’ and it’s probably a good thing; no writer of fiction would dare invent such a thing. But a writer of fiction would take care to make certain the motivations of every character were dramatized.” The Washington Post’s Paul Attanasio felt that the book the film was based on was stronger: “But since everything that’s interesting about Penn’s performance comes out of the book, not the script, it just plays like empty bravura. Everything about this movie is backwards – where Lindsey was fascinated by the way political and cultural themes were grated on what was essentially just a scam, Schlesinger starts with an idea of an era, then contends that his characters were the products of it. Instead of a story, there’s just a lot of footage of the falcon flying around, toting his subjective camera, and, like the audience, at the end of its tether.”
If The Falcon and the Snowman has any flaws it’s the rather bland direction. One can see why Schlesinger took this approach as the story and the performances are so strong that he probably didn’t want to distract from them. However, just imagine what someone like Michael Mann could’ve done with this material? One only has to look at something like The Insider (1999) to see how dynamic a film about people talking can be with world-class cinematography. Slightly flashier direction could’ve elevated The Falcon and the Snowman from a good film to a great one. That being said, the story is engrossing and the cast deliver top notch performances, especially Hutton and Penn who are very convincing as young men pretending to be spies and unable to deal with the consequences of their actions. Ultimately, the filmmakers don’t judge Boyce or Lee – they leave it up to the audience to draw their own conclusions. What the film does try to do is explore what motivated their actions and how it affected their lives. The rather haunting song, “This Is Not America” by David Bowie, Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays plays over the end credits and does a nice job of summing up what we’ve just seen. The song takes us out on a somber, sobering note as we’ve just watched film with no clear cut heroes and villains – just a lot of flawed people who are motivated by very personal beliefs and obsessions.
Goulding, Joan. “Actor Sean Penn Urges Release of Convicted Spy.” United Press International. January 18, 1985.
Hay, David. “The Falcon Who Clipped CIA’s Wings.” Sunday Mail. February 17, 1985.
Kelly, Richard T. Sean Penn: His Life and Times. Faber & Faber. London: 2004.
Morgan, P. “The Actor and the Falcon.” Courier-Mail. April 27, 1985.
Scott, Jay. “Timothy Hutton’s No Favorite in the Celebrity Sweepstakes.” Globe and Mail. January 21, 1985.
Thomas, Bob. “Another ‘Fringe’ Film for Director of Darling, Midnight Cowboy.” Associated Press. January 24, 1985.