At the Movies with Alan Gekko: The Falcon and the Snowman “85”

MPAA Rating: R/Genre: Spy Drama/ Stars: Timothy Hutton, Sean Penn, Pat Hingle, Joyce Van Patten, Richard Dysart, Priscilla Pointer, Chris Makepeace, Dorian Harewood, Macon McCalman, Nicholas Pryor, Jerry Hardin, Lori Singer, David Suchet, Boris Leskin/ Runtime: 131 minutes

I feel it is safe to start this review off dear reader by letting you know that 1985’s The Falcon and the Snowman is a riveting yard on the subject of espionage, but the kind that is done on a quite narrow and personal level. This is because our protagonists are a pair of young men who, for their own reasons, decided in the mid-70s to engage in the highly illegal action of selling American secrets to the Soviet Union thus finding themselves engaged in a deadly game of wits without ever fully comprehending just what the true price or fallout for their particular actions really was. Indeed as helmed by John Schlesinger and scripted by a man by the name of Steven Zaillian, the film does struggle in its attempts to fully comprehend the entirety of this particular situation and as such chooses to pick and choose specific items that help to really showcase the breakdown of these 2 guys as they come up against increasingly high amounts of both peril and paranoia in equal measure. Yet in all fairness, it is also strongly performed and the 2 lead turns by Hutton and Penn are truly terrific in their showcasing just how much a series of poor decision making can become something akin to quicksand, but at the same time it is often not the easiest thing in the world to stay on track with the bigger picture at play due to the film quite frequently ditching secondary characters as well as frantic motives in order to stay huddled with those elements that are most familiar to this particular genre of film. Thus it is most certainly not a failure by any stretch of the imagination, but at the same time this is a film that feels dramatically incomplete and where liberal doses of both editing and just plain indifference have worked together to trim down a narrative which ironically required a wider scope than it was given since that would help us get a more significant comprehension of these 2 boys, the choices they made, and the fallout that ensued as a result of those choices.

The plot is as follows: The movie takes us back to the midst of that wild and uncertain time known as the 1970s and introduces us to a young man by the name of Christopher Boyce who, when our film opens, is at a crossroads in life. This is because he has chosen to leave his seminary education which has opened a void in this life and resulted in him hanging on to his passion of falconry in order to give him a degree of necessary direction and maybe help him find his way again in life. Soon however, his father who is known in certain circles gives him the option to take on a job working as a civilian defense contractor which results in Christopher making it to what is known as the Black Vault. A location that, we soon come to learn, is the locale responsible for managing the top-secret communiques between all the covert ops our government has on-going at any particular time around the globe. It isn’t long however before we see our young protagonist come to comprehend that his country is involved in some very shady actions that go way beyond the call of “maintaining the safety and security of the United States and her citizens” and so decides to level the playing field a little bit and puts together a scheme to swipe top-secret coded material and turn around and sell them to our friendly little competition at the time: The Soviet Union. Soon coming to the realization that he’ll need a guy to act as his emissary, we see Chris decide to bring onboard an old pal by the name of Daulton Lee since they’re friends and because Daulton, like Chris, is another well-off kid who simply doesn’t have the faintest idea of what he wants to do with his life and as such has been setting up his own drug empire (clearly a prelude to Penn’s time in Carlito’s Way). Thus it isn’t long before our dynamic duo find themselves rousing the curiosity of the Russian’s embassy in Mexico who send a representative of their own to make the exchanges possible. An action which now sets into motion a frantic and unhinged system of both negotiating for and delivering intel which before too long starts to test our protagonists’ will and drive to keep going as we see the inevitable complications start to pile up and each of their individual motivations for getting involved begin to get just a tad bit grayer than they were when they first started…..

Now what ensures that this film is as riveting as it turns out to be is it’s opening where we briskly follow Chris’s path from a sensitive and integrity-filled guy to jaded and quite on edge spy. Indeed it is due to both being in the shadow of both his dad’s overwhelming sense of patriotism to say nothing of witnessing the downfall of Nixon, Chris finds himself left with a very off-kilter view of the balance of power on a global level with his intro to the communiques he sees come across his desk proving to be the tipping point due to it showing him just how “underhanded” we as a country can get when we choose to be. Indeed there really is a erosive factor to this character that is quite understandable especially since he chooses to engage in the acts that he does not for financial gain, but out of a sense of revenge towards perceived “wrongs” committed by our government. To that end, we also see that the film’s writer also manages to inject Chris’ time in the Black Vault with a fairly liberal dose of comedy as the film manages to portray this tiny yet integral office as a place where drinks are mixed with a paper shredder on the daily, dance-offs are a thing, and spending time with your co-workers after work can include getting in an intoxicated confrontation at a strip joint. Thus with these being the individuals who we had chosen to put in control of our interests, it is completely plausible that Chris would be able to sneak in and leave the office with the intel that he did thus creating a kind of Pandora’s Box scenario that really proves to be quite tasking on this young man’s morality. At that same time, the character of Daulton is also given just as much in terms of characterization. Indeed Daulton we learn is a slightly off his rocker dealer in “snow” whose life has been equal parts mishap and family shame, and whose core building block for his self-esteem has primarily been through financial gains. More importantly however, this is a kid who may be on edge like no one else, but who also has a comprehension of smuggling like no one else thus making him an incredible plus for his friend Chris to have in his corner. Thus we see that most of this film deals with Daulton attempting to wheel and deal with the employee that the Russian Embassy assigns to look into this and getting the particulars of their agreement ironed out whilst also at the same time threatening to take away Chris’s anonymity and losing concentration on the matter at hand due to a horrifically blossoming reliance on heroin which starts to send Daulton’s paranoia over the edge. Suffice it to say then that Daulton is the wrinkle in this plan who really is out to serve himself despite claiming loyalty to his friend and it this dissolution of trust which is crucial to the narrative as we see complications start to emerge courtesy of both a void of integrity-laced communication and Daulton’s own carelessness at sharing what he’s doing with women in order to impress them thus causing Chris to consider kicking him to the curb once the heat starts getting a little too warm for his liking.

Unfortunately with that being said, this film is a whole lot less in terms of a success when it comes to showcasing for us as an audience the various bonds in this film as we see that the history of Chris and Daulton’s friendship is only really cemented at film’s end courtesy of a series of flashbacks instead of at the beginning which would make a lot more sense. Rather, the film’s helmer only hints at bits and pieces of this quite toxic friendship courtesy of parental disapproval and trying desperately to keep this duo at as much of a distance as possible. Along with that we also see our duo’s love lives also have been hedged quite down which results in Chris’s relationship with a lovely young woman by the name of Lana lacking completely of any meaning and is only constructed as an outlet for Chris to engage in beyond his espionage activities. Along with that we see that Lana, as well as Chris’ family, proves to be just window dressing when they should prove to be more integral to his arc in this film. Instead the movie, again, only provides us with hints of how much of an influence his father was whereas Daulton’s parental units are turned into simple one-note and high with the exasperation kind of people who can’t even talk with him let alone deal with him. Suffice it to say that The Falcon and the Snowman is a movie that feels like it was longer, but hedged down significantly to be more commercial and with integral parts of both backstory and personal things likely omitted in order for the film to focus on all the espionage activities at play. Yet out of those omissions perhaps the most perilous to this film’s success is the omitting of the Catholic guilt felt by Chris, or at least his time spent in seminary since it is set up quite early in the film to be a significant part of who he is as a character. Instead we see that it is completely shut out of the film as the movie makes the choice to sidestep religion for why Chris eventually breaks down and does what he does and instead chooses to put more on a lean towards a political motive (compared in the film to a respect for predatory behavior). Indeed it really isn’t a good thing for a film when a crucial part of a character is just pushed aside instead of being seen as the integral building block that it is.

Thankfully making up for all of that however is the fact that in regards to the performances in this film they are all absolutely top-notch in every sense of the word. Indeed in the work done to bring the dynamic duo at the heart of the film to life we see that Hutton does a wonderful job at mixing together both a low-key sense of subtlety together with a passionate desire to really look into himself and ask more than once if what he is doing is right while Penn is phenomenal as the slimy worm of the duo who both knows all the angles and uses each and every one of them to both keep one step ahead of everyone, but also to just stay alive period. Yet even more remarkable is the fact that this thespian pairing actually works at conjuring up the necessary amount of unease and tension needed between our two protagonists as things start to quickly and terrifyingly go downhill. It should also be noted that film helmer Schlesinger does possess a praise-worthy ability to turn the panic and suspense up gradually rather than all at once and this is film which does actually possess surprisingly legit moments of terror where we witness the players of this deadly game being challenged to keep things afloat lest they wind up either getting caught or getting killed. Suffice it to say then that even though this is a film that runs at 10 minutes over 2 hours, including credits, this film should feel complete yet it is still missing both key intel and a sense of gravity to keep the whole thing grounded despite the fact that the performances and just the overall astonishment of this story keeping everything held together quite well. Yes the spy games on display are intriguing, but I do feel that more in terms of characterization about these 2 guys is integral if we are to fully comprehend just what led them to commit these actions.

All in all and flaws aside, The Falcon and the Snowman is still a riveting and well-performed and made look at the world of espionage through the eyes of a pair of young men who decided to risk it all simply out of a worst case scenario mixture of greed, naivety, and disillusionment. Not disillusionment of themselves mind you, but of their country and just what directions their country had gone to the point that upon learning what they did they felt like they barely knew it anymore and decided to do something about it. More than that however, this is a distinct entry in the dramatic thriller since it manages to ask a quite intriguing, at least from a philosophy point of view, question. That would be the fact that since Boyce claims to know a thing or 2, due to his time as a falconer, about the behavior of predatory organisms, to say nothing of the fact that this whole movie consists of symbolism involving big organisms devouring smaller organisms, and he left his path at the church because he came to the conclusion that mankind will never understand divinity since he is just another animal in the world then pray tell dear reader just where exactly does this leave us as a species if we ultimately cannot change that part of us? Indeed if there is an answer that is to be found to this question dear reader then you won’t find it answered in full here, but perhaps the fear in the faces of our 2 protagonists’ sets of parental units along with the always in the background apparition that is the size, shape, length, and width of a mushroom cloud might be able to help you begin to formulate the answer…..On a scale of 1-5 I give The Falcon and the Snowman “85” a solid 3.5 out of 5.