‘This is not America…’ sang David Bowie at the end of John Schlesinger’s under-seen espionage story, torn from the headlines and released to an uncaring audience circa awards –season January 1985. And indeed, this was not an American anyone wanted to see; corrupt, incompetent, lacking in any kind of moral compass; the era that encompassed both Reaganomincs and Born in the USA didn’t have much space for such visions. I’m creating a new category for films that I saw as a youth and see more in now; a recant, an admission that this critic, like every other critic, sometimes gets it wrong.
The Falcon and the Snowman is the story of two men, or rather two boys, two altar-boys; the film uses shots of them in their religious garb as bookends. Christopher Boyce and Andrew Daulton Lee came from good homes, and were both of exceptional ability and talent; rising stars Timothy Hutton and Sean Penn may have seemed like weak casting in terms of bums on seats at the time, but they’ve both become stars of considerable stature, and they both shine in roles that need underplaying because the drama is so well observed. Because this is the spy game, but there are no gadgets, girls, no flash cars; a camera is used, there’s a secret door behind which a tele-printer chugs through reams of computer paper. Even when Lee wants to sneak into the Russian embassy in Mexico, he simply runs in a crouch behind a hedge; this isn’t a story of how things might be done in a fanciful world, but how they happen in the real one.
Boyce is a young man who wants to rebel; his colleagues in L.A’s Black Vault of secret communications are more interested in making the perfect margarita. But Boyce has politics on his mind, and Schlesinger opens with a detailed scene of Boyce watching Nixon’s impeachment on his family home television, so politically astute that he’s able to predict each individual vote before they happen. When Boyce accidentally happens on evidence that the American government are deliberately seeking to interfere in the politics of other countries (an Australian labor dispute), he takes it as a clear sign that there’s a moral vacuum, and seeks to expose his superiors by revealing the truth; a whistle-blower, in other words. When he’s arrested, his defence is clear ‘I’m a Democrat.’
Lee, one of Penn’s gallery of moral deviants, is a far different character; he’s a born entrepreneur, not afraid to take his lumps or turn snitch when the law gets on his case. He’s willing to try anything; peddling Boyce’s secrets to the Russians, namely Alex (intensely played by David Suchet), Lee tries to throw in a consignment of heroin into the bargain, to the consternation of his hosts. Capitalism and product is all Lee cares about; framed by his Russian frenemies and carted off by the cops, he offers his own defence- ‘But I’m a Republican.’
Schlesinger was a British director whose remarkable ability to frame moral drama (Darling, Midnight Cowboy, Sunday Bloody Sunday, Marathon Man) led him to Hollywood; Falcon was probably the last great work of his career. He observes the tradecraft shown by the two boys in forensic detail, helped by the literate Steven Zallian script, his first. An early scene has Boyce wakening Lee, accidentally knocking and smashing a goldfish bowl. Lee scrapes the fish off the floor and drops it into another tank, mumbling ‘he’ll never know.’ But we, the audience, see that the fish is immediately eaten by another; it’s a dog-eat-dog world, and for all Lee and Boyce’s cynicism, they have no idea how quickly their naivety can and will be exploited. Belonging to the Republican or Democrat club is no defence; it’s actions that count, and The Falcon and the Snowman brilliantly shows how the protagonists’ equally idealistic, yet differing sense of self can lead them to be heroes and villains in the same instance. This is America, or at least, America now.
This consideration of the dangers of unchecked capitalism and idealism, individually or collectively, seemed boring to me as a teenager; it seems far wiser now in 2020, and the link below works even if there’s no image for it, one more indignity for a true-story that’s been swept under the carpet since Robert Linsdey’s book was published in 1979.