K Street was a short-lived television show created by Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney that aired on HBO for one season in 2003. Looking back at it now, the show has not aged well unless you're a news or politics junkie. Even among Soderbergh fans it is generally regarded as a failed experiment. However, it is a fascinating snapshot of a prolific filmmaker at the height of his mainstream popularity having just come off the one-two punch of the highly acclaimed Erin Brockovich (2000) and Traffic (2000). He used this newfound clout to push through a very unusual T.V. series that examined topical news stories, mixing fictional characters with actual politicians playing “themselves” to comment on American politics.
K Street stars real-life couple James Carville, an ex-Democratic strategist, and his wife Mary Matalin, a former George Bush staffer. They first gained serious mainstream attention when their unlikely romance was chronicled in D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus' documentary The War Room (1993), a behind-the-scenes look at the 1992 Bill Clinton campaign. On the show, they are partners in a start-up lobbying and consulting company called Bergstrom, Lowell. Their assistants are fictional characters played by Mary McCormack and John Slattery.
In the first episode, James and Mary butt heads over his decision to agree to help Governor Howard Dean prepare for an upcoming debate. It's James and his assistant Tommy Flannegan (John Slattery) against Mary and her assistant Maggie Morris (Mary McCormack) as they argue over the notion of bipartisanship. After Tommy and Maggie leave the room, James and Mary discuss Francisco Dupre (Roger Guenveur Smith), a mysterious figure that their shadowy owner, Bergstrom, says they must give a yet undefined job. We get glimpses of Dupre early on and he comes across as a quietly confident man who gets his shoes shined, gets a manicure, gets his haircut, and buys a new suit, all in preparation for meeting with James and Mary. Intertwined throughout the ten episodes are two storylines - the relationship between James and Mary and the murky motivations of Bergstrom.
Veteran character actor Roger Guenveur Smith portrays Dupre as a self-assured enigma who appears to say who he is without giving away much of anything and this leaves James and Mary understandably wary. At times, he's coyly evasive and at other times, warm and reassuring, but even then you wonder if it is an act. As always, John Slattery is good as James' right-hand man. The scene where he argues with Dupre over the difference between Ice-T and Ice Cube is amusing. Over time, we are given tidbits of insight into these characters, like Maggie's fascinating subplot that involves the messy fallout with a girlfriend, which weighs heavily on her mind.
K Street was as inside as it gets when it came to depicting American politics as executive producers Clooney and Soderbergh had incredible access to politicians on Capitol Hill featuring the likes of Orrin Hatch and Rick Santorum. Soderbergh adopts a restless, hand-held camera for a verite look that invokes Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool (1969), which was a docudrama set amidst the chaos of the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention and also combined fiction and non-fictional material. Along with Robert Altman's Tanner '88, which placed a fictional candidate in the middle of the 1988 Democratic primary, both are arguably the most significant influences on K Street. Soderbergh adopts a fly-on-the-wall approach that makes you feel like eavesdropping on these folks. Soderbergh also utilizes his trademark filters throughout with cool, gun-metal blues and sickly, queasy yellows. This was achieved by shooting on digital video utilizing multiple cameras with no special lighting and direct sound.
James Carville and Republican image-maker Michael Deaver came up with the idea for the show, which the former envisioned being “about power: building power, applying power.” As luck would have it, producer Mark Sennet, who was friends with Deaver, called him up one day asking if he had any ideas for a Washington, D.C.-set show. He approached Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney who liked the idea enough that, along with Sennet, pitched it to HBO where it eventually aired. When Soderbergh and his two executive producers began discussing the possibility of doing the show, they watched Tanner '88. Soderbergh said, “All of us felt it was a terrific show and it was time to do something similar. But we wanted to take advantage of the new technology to shoot in run-and-gun fashion,” to create what they called, “real-time fiction.” The three men spent six months with lobbyists and consultants to study their daily routines and learn how they did things.
HBO, which had also backed Tanner '88, continued their habit for courting high profile talent, like Clooney and Soderbergh, and gave them the creative freedom to experiment. K Street had no scripts or written outlines and no one took a writing credit. All the dialogue was improvised, but all the locations and guest appearance were pre-arranged. On Monday mornings, Clooney and Soderbergh, along with their creative team and the actors, would meet and discuss the news that occurred over the weekend, read all the newspapers for the morning, and pick the topical news item that would be the focus for that week's episode. They would shoot for two-and-a-half days, edit for two days and then it would air on Sunday. Soderbergh directed, edited and acted as cinematographer for all ten episodes. Principal photography usually ended on Wednesday, sometimes Thursday, with the director editing right up to the Friday deadline.
K Street received mostly negative reviews from mainstream critics. The New York Times' Alessandra Stanley wrote, “Mr. Soderbergh's original idea was to fuse real people and up-to-the-minute political happenings into a drama about Washington. But in the first episode, at least, the director did the reverse: he built a superstructure of Washington retreads and threaded it with the thinnest filament of fictional intrigue.” In his review for the Washington Post, Tom Shales wrote, “K Street is highly unlikely to become a national sensation, but in big cities of the East it ought to be quite the conversation piece-for a little while anyway. In a sense, the show comes off like a marvelous party, but one to which many of us are bound to feel profoundly uninvited.” USA Today gave it one-and-a-half out four stars and Robert Bianco felt that it was a “pointlessly rambling inside look at Washington's spindocracy - a self-contained, self-satisfied group of political hangers-on who are fascinating to each other and of no interest to anyone else.” However, in her review for the Los Angeles Times, Manohla Dargis wrote, “Brainy, beautifully shot, consistently funny and audacious in its disregard for narrative convention, this HBO show about the power elite in Washington was among the very best and most misunderstood cultural achievements of the year.”
One way to look at K Street is that the topical news storyline is merely window-dressing while the heart of the show is the dynamic between the gregarious James and his no-nonsense wife Mary. The most entertaining parts of the show are when they argue. For non-actors they are very charismatic and act naturally in front of the camera. The problem with K Street, and what dates it, is its ripped-from-the-headlines format so that you wonder who some of these people are that our protagonists interact with. Unless you are politically savvy there is the real possibility of feeling frustrated like you're missing something. The show doesn't spoon-feed its audience and assumes that they follow the daily news, which is probably why it didn't last long.
That being said, in this day and age of Google and Wikipedia, it wouldn't be too hard to figure out who everyone is and their significance, but most people don't want to do that kind of legwork. At its best, K Street shows what a PR firm does - lobbying politicians, creating ad campaigns and running them through test groups, and so on. Clooney and Soderbergh should be commended for updating what Wexler and Altman did before them, but the immediacy of a lot of the subject matter dates the show, which ultimately prevents it from being something truly great instead of being merely a curious footnote in both of their respective careers.
Frey, Jennifer. “Hollywood Cues the Capitol.” Washington Post. September 13, 2003.
Galupo, Scott. “K Street: Potholes or Road to Fame?” Washington Times. September 12, 2003.
McCollum, Charlie. “K Street is Fresh Fictional Avenue for Real Issues.” San Jose Mercury News. September 11, 2003.
McConnell, Bill. “Hollywood Goes to Washington.” Broadcasting and Cable. September 8, 2003.
Mullins, Brody. “HBO Gets Ready to Take on K Street.” Roll Call. August 4, 2003.
Taubin, Amy. “K Street: Washington Inside-Out.” Film Comment.
"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon
"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell
Friday, July 26, 2013
Friday, July 19, 2013
It’s been five long years since Guillermo del Toro directed a film. It certainly hasn’t been from a lack of trying as he was all set to direct The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) before legal studio wrangling prompted him to depart the production. Then, he came close to realizing his dream project, an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, but the studio balked at a big budget R-rated monster movie and that fell through. Frustrated, Del Toro jumped at the opportunity to direct Pacific Rim (2013), an epic science fiction film that he was already producing and co-writing with Travis Beacham (Clash of the Titans). The film fits rather nicely in Del Toro’s wheelhouse as it involves massive battles between giant monsters and human-operated robots.
Del Toro has always been fascinated by creatures, from the mutant insects in Mimic (1997) to the grotesque vampires in Blade II (2002) to the creature underworld in Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008). Pacific Rim allows him to pay tribute to the kaiju and mecha genres popularized in Japan that were spearheaded by Godzilla (1954). After the impersonal CGI workouts that characterized Michael Bay’s Transformers movies, the hope was that Del Toro could bring his own personal touch to the summer blockbuster.
A few years into the future and giant monsters known as Kaiju emerge from a portal located deep on the ocean floor and lay waste to cities all over the world. In response, many countries band together and create the Jaeger program, an army of enormous robots, or mecha, controlled by two human pilots, to combat these creatures. The pilots form a kind of Vulcan mind meld so that they are not just one with each other, but with the robot as well. This gives Del Toro the opportunity to hit it us up with one loving shot after another of these mecha, showing how they work in a way that tells us all we need to know in a few minutes.
The opening battle not only introduces us to how the mecha operate, but also to Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), a hotshot pilot and his equally brash older brother Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff). Of course, their cockiness proves to be their undoing and Yancy is killed in battle while Raleigh lives, wracked with guilt. With this opening battle, Del Toro does an excellent job of conveying the colossal scale of the robots and the monsters and what they can both do in a way that is never confusing.
He also personalizes the battle by showing how it affects the pilots. As the years pass and the war rages on, more Jaegers are destroyed and the program is to be phased out in a matter of months. The remaining ones are ordered to regroup in Hong Kong for a last stand. Raleigh has quit and becomes an anonymous welder working on a coastal defensive wall in Alaska when he is recruited back into the program by his former commanding officer Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba). The introduction of the surviving Jaegers is robot porn for mecha fans with lingering, awe-inspiring shots of the architecture of each one.
There’s an amusing subplot involving Dr. Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day), a quirky, maverick scientist, pursuing a wild experiment that allows him to mind meld with the brain from one of the creatures, but a live one is hard to come by so he seeks out black marketeer of living Kaiju organs, Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman) in the slums of Hong Kong. It’s a small role, but one that veteran Del Toro collaborator Ron Perlman makes the most of with his flashy attire and gruff attitude. The interplay between the grouchy cynicism of Hannibal and the frantic idealism of Dr. Geiszler is entertaining and provides some much needed levity. It is a lot of fun to see Ron Perlman and Charlie Day (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) banter back and forth, including a cool sequence where Hannibal’s crew travel through the insides of a defeated creature to find its secondary brain and stumble across something else.
Let’s face it; the characterization in Pacific Rim is pretty superficial with most of the pilots being interchangeable and their rivalry coming off as something right out of Top Gun (1986). At best, the dialogue is serviceable and many of the archetypal characters are rife with clichés as Raleigh is teamed-up with Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), a rookie with no practical experience, but has a thirst for revenge, much like he does. Del Toro makes some attempts at characterization with Raleigh and Mako coming to grips with their respective demons over the course of the film, which is, to be honest, simply filler between impressively staged battle sequences. Only Idris Elba and Ron Perlman manage to make a distinctive impression with their respective characters, the latter rising above his character’s archetype through sheer force of will and attitude. Just look at the choices Perlman makes with wardrobe, how he speaks and how he carries himself to see how an actor can make something out of a minor role. However, we’re not watching Pacific Rim for characters’ soul-searching. We’re here to see giant robots beat the crap out of huge monsters, which this film delivers in a very satisfying way.
Some criticize the monsters in Pacific Rim as looking rather alike (reminiscent of the monster from Cloverfield) and not very distinctive, which is rather odd considering what a fan of monsters Del Toro is and what unique creatures he’s delivered in the past. I get the feeling that he was more interested in showing the diversity of the Jaegers – all of which have their own distinctive look and abilities. He lingers on them many times while the Kaiju are seen fleetingly during the day or slightly-obscured at night or deep under murky water. This may have been due to the budget limitations for the creature visual effects or that he simply wanted to put more emphasis on the mecha and the people that pilot them.
For anyone who grew up watching or is a fan of Godzilla vs. [insert name of monster], Pacific Rim is pure, unadulterated cinematic catnip. It is pretty cool to see robots and monsters duke it out, like a moment where one of the Jaegers uses a large freighter ship like a baseball bat, or when the same robot uses a giant sword to slice a Kaiju in half (in what seems like a visual nod to Voltron!). Unlike the Transformers movies, Pacific Rim has a lot of heart. It’s not afraid to embrace clichés, like the stirring call to battle speech, the maverick pilot with something to prove, and the scientist with a wild theory that just might help beat the monsters, and serve them up with a straight face. Del Toro does this lovingly as only a fan of kaiju movies could.
You really get the feeling that there is something at stake in the story depicted in Pacific Rim, that this isn’t just another CGI workout – all noise and fury signifying nothing. While this film may not be as artistically satisfying as The Devil’s Backbone (2001) or Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), it is wonderful to see Del Toro back in the director’s chair delivering the goods with a rousing and entertaining popcorn movie that reminds us of the unbridled glee we felt as children being transported to cinematic worlds populated by visually arresting special effects and heroic figures fighting to save the world.
Friday, July 12, 2013
From the early to mid-1990s, Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson was a power celebrity couple that managed to be incredibly popular, especially in their native United Kingdom, while also steering clear of being absorbed into the Hollywood system. They both brought considerable pedigree to their relationship as he had been responsible for revitalizing Shakespeare in cinema with highly acclaimed adaptations of Henry V (1989), Much Ado About Nothing (1993), and Hamlet (1996), while she was a Merchant Ivory star with Howards End (1992) and The Remains of the Day (1993). Not surprisingly, they appeared in several films together, most notably Peter’s Friends (1992), the aforementioned Much Ado and my personal favorite, the psychological thriller Dead Again (1991), before divorcing in 1995.
Dead Again was Branagh and Thompson’s brief dalliance with Hollywood, but on their terms. It is a modest neo-noir indebted to the films of Alfred Hitchcock with Branagh and Thompson playing dual roles in 1940s flashbacks and also present day. This film is often forgotten in their respective filmographies, which is a shame as it features a smartly written screenplay by Scott Frank and excellent performances from not just the lead actors, but the entire cast. The end result is a clever and engaging thriller.
Mike Church (Kenneth Branagh) is an ex-cop turned private investigator that specializes in missing persons cases. He’s doing nickel and dime jobs when asked to do a favor for a priest that took him in at Saint Audrey’s Home for Boys when he was quite young. A woman (Emma Thompson) showed up one day unable to speak and suffers from amnesia as well as horrible nightmares that take place in the 1940s where a famous composer by the name of Roman Strauss (Branagh) is convicted and sentenced to death for killing his wife Margaret (Thompson) with a pair of scissors. Roman professes his innocence, claiming a thief killed his wife, but his alibi doesn’t hold up and evidence points towards his guilt.
Branagh films these flashbacks in rich, atmospheric black and white in an obvious homage to classic film noir, complete with the ominous use of shadows, like when Gray Baker (Andy Garcia), the reporter that covered the murder trial, visits Roman on death row. These sequences really allow Branagh to ramp up the style and have a bit of fun. Andy Garcia has a plum supporting role as a disheveled, alcoholic reporter that has been spinning his wheels since World War II ended. The actor has his character’s look down cold with the rumpled clothes and unshaven (yet still handsome) appearance, but wisely doesn’t go over-the-top as would be the temptation for a drunken burn out like Baker.
Mike is enlisted to find out who this mysterious woman is and he’s immediately taken with her beauty (Thompson at arguably the height of her loveliness). After one look at the deplorable conditions of County Hospital, he decides to take her home. Branagh and Thompson are good in these initial scenes together as he plays Mike as a nice guy who nervously talks incessantly while she adopts a timid, fragile stance as her character is at the mercy of the world. There’s definitely a spark of attraction between Mike and this woman, which is enhanced by the chemistry between the two actors. After doing some digging, he finds out that Roman and Margaret were actual people and that she was murdered and he was executed for the crime.
The next day, a hypnotist cum antiques dealer by the name of Franklyn Madson (Derek Jacobi) shows up at Mike’s door claiming that he can help the woman figure out her identity. Derek Jacobi has a delicious role as a hypnotist who is a bit of an opportunist, putting people under not only to help them, but to also find out if they have any valuable knick-knacks that he can pilfer. Mike is dubious that Franklyn can help her, but goes along with the sessions. Once under hypnosis, she recounts how Roman and Margaret met and fell in love. As the film progresses, Mike tries to figure out how these recollections from the past inform the present. Is this mystery woman somehow the reincarnation of Margaret Strauss? Was he Roman? Will history repeat itself?
Early on in the film, Emma Thompson relies on her expressive eyes and facial features to convey the extreme emotions her character experiences. In doing so, she not only gains Mike’s sympathies, but also ours. Once her character is able to talk, the actress brings even more charm to the role as abundantly evident in the scene where Mike makes dinner for her character. If we haven’t become fully invested in her character’s plight then this moment seals the deal.
Kenneth Branagh does a fine job essaying a stereotypical cinematic gumshoe of the West Coast variety. He certainly doesn’t do anything to rise up in the pantheon of such characters and it looks like he’s having more fun in the flashbacks playing a famous German composer jealous that a rumpled reporter shows romantic interest in his wife. These sequences allow Branagh to act more theatrical and pretend like he’s in a classic Hollywood movie.
Being involved in real life certainly helps Branagh and Thompson’s on-screen chemistry, which is fantastic, but not every real-life couple have it so this was a bit of a gamble for them to take. Fortunately, it pays off. The looks that the two of them exchange throughout the film are warm and feel genuine. Looking back now, it’s hard not to feel a few pangs of nostalgia looking at an apparently happy couple that are no longer together.
Also of note is Robin Williams playing a small, but memorable role as a disgraced ex-psychiatrist working at a local convenience store dispensing advice to Mike. It’s a semi-serious role that saw the famous funnyman cracking jokes, but with the bitter edge of someone burnt out from life. The normally solid Wayne Knight adopts a distracting lisp/whistle through his teeth when he talks that seems like a bit much and an obvious attempt to make his character more colorful than it really is.
After his directorial debut with Henry V, Kenneth Branagh was keen to film an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native. After a booking in Australia fell though, Branagh and his wife, Emma Thompson, found themselves in Los Angeles performing Shakespeare’s King Lear and A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the theater troupe he had founded in 1987. It happened to coincide with the announcing of the Academy Award nominations. Henry V was the recipient of several, including Branagh for Best Actor and Direction. This caught the attention of Hollywood and he was approached by several studios keen to work with him. However, they only knew him from Henry V and weren’t interested in his new project. He started getting screenplays for art films, biopics, and war films: “All the Vietnam pictures that never got made,” he remembers. None of them appealed to him.
Then, producer Lindsay Doran sent him Scott Frank’s script for Dead Again. She had commissioned the script from the writer while at Paramount Pictures in 1986. She subsequently moved to Sydney Pollack’s production company where, with Frank’s help, began looking for a director. She saw Henry V and felt that Branagh was the right person for the job. When he read Frank’s script, Branagh was blown away by it. The script made him think of Alfred Hitchcock films like Rebecca (1940), Spellbound (1945) and Dial M for Murder (1954) – motion pictures that made big impressions on him when he was younger. He felt that Frank’s work had “all the classic ingredients of a mystery thriller on a noir-ish level. It was a good yarn, underneath which it touched lightly on the sense of ‘Are we meant to be with people in relationships that we resolve from lifetime to lifetime?’” Branagh immediately pictured Derek Jacobi as the antiques dealer and Thompson as the mystery woman with no memory. However, Doran initially only wanted him to direct, but he was also wanted to act opposite his wife with them playing dual roles that were originally intended for four different actors. In addition, he also wanted to cast Jacobi and a few key crew members from Henry V to work on it. The studio agreed, but only if the film had a couple of well-known American actors in it.
Branagh worked hard to adopt an American accent, spending hours listening to tapes and spending time with Frank. “I knew I had to deliver more than just a collection of representative sounds. Vocal cadences and rhythms had to be believable.” He also worked on his character’s body language by observing people walking around in L.A. and then going into shopping malls and trying out what he learned. Thompson found her role challenging because “if you’ve lost your memory you’ve lost your power to relate to anything at all … memories are not available to you, and you find you have very little to say … The principle thing you discover is it produces intense loneliness.”
Dead Again received positive to mixed notices from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “This film is made of guignol setting and mood, music and bold stylized camera angles, coincidence and shock, melodrama and romance. And it is also suffused with a strange, infectious humor; Branagh plays it dead seriously, but sees that it is funny.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Mr. Branagh doesn’t exactly transform the absurdities of the story into great art, which was probably never his intention. Instead he recognizes them without condescension, turning out a most enjoyable and knowing homage to a kind of fiction that, though dead, keeps coming back.” Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen wrote, “There’s little passion behind the pyrotechnics: you never quite shake the feeling that you’re watching a talented cast playing an elaborate game of Let’s Pretend. Still, be grateful for the genuine amusement Dead Again supplies. It may be cotton candy, but it’s well spun.”
Entertainment Weekly gave the film an “A” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “The two lead performers triumph during the flashback sequences, which are really the heart of the film … Thompson and Branagh don’t do a parody of classic Hollywood acting so much as an homage to it. They made me appreciate the focus of the great old stars, the way they could define, with intoxicating clarity, the emotions on which a scene spun.” However, USA Today gave the film two out of four stars and Mike Clark wrote, “Thanks in part to some fundamental miscasting, this convoluted whodunit (half-period, half-contemporary) is a misconceived attempt to establish just-plain-folks credentials.” In her review for the Washington Post, Rita Kempley found the film, “a campy Gothic melodrama about one couple’s ongoing hassle with bad karma … this overwrought and overly facile look at accounts payable in the afterlife.”
Screenwriter Scott Frank creates an intriguing murder mystery as we wonder if Roman really killed Margaret in the past and who is Thompson’s amnesiac character in the present? Both storylines dovetail rather nicely at the film’s exciting climax, which goes off the rails a bit as Branagh’s flair for theatrics gets the better of him. Frank has gone on to become one of the best, most consistent writers working in Hollywood and while Dead Again is not a major work, it doesn’t try to be. The film is a clever cinematic equivalent of a page turner – entertainingly executed by Branagh and company.
Arnold, Gary. “Ken and Emma Put Their Act Together.” Washington Times. August 21, 1991.
Black, Kent. “Married … With Chutzpah.” Los Angeles Times. August 18, 1991.
Koltnow, Barry. “Irish Actor/Director Aims at America with Dual Role in Dead Again.” Orange County Register. August 21, 1991.
Lacey, Liam. “No Longer A ‘Classical’ Person.” Globe and Mail. August 19, 1991.
Portman, Jamie. “Irish-Born Actor at Home as Los Angeles Detective.” Ottawa Citizen. August 23, 1991.
Weber, Bruce. “From Shakespeare to Hollywood.” The New York Times. August 18, 1991.
Friday, July 5, 2013
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.