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The Falcon and the Snowman (1985)

December 31st, 2007 · 2 Comments

Falcon and the Snowman 1985 poster.jpg   Falcon and the Snowman DVD cover.jpg

When his conscience conflicts with his chosen faith, Christopher Boyce (Timothy Hutton) drops out of seminary school and returns home. His childhood friend Andrew Daulton Lee (Sean Penn) – on probation for possession of narcotics with intent to sell – travels between Mexico and his family’ home in California dealing drugs. Needing a job, Boyce is recommended by his father (Pat Hingle), retired FBI, for a position at “RTX Credit”.

Boyce is promoted from the mailroom to the aerospace division, which operates surveillance satellites the company manufactures and maintains for the CIA. Working in a communications vault, Boyce discovers a cable revealing the CIA has infiltrated a labor union in Australia in an effort to affect the political leadership of the country. Upset that the U.S. is mired in covert actions that have nothing to do with national security, Boyce presents Daulton with a business proposition.

Daulton travels to Mexico City, where he makes contact with a Soviet embassy clerk (David Suchet). Soon, he’s selling military secrets to the U.S.S.R. He’s also snorting heroin and becomes erratic as a courier. Boyce settles down with a girl (Lori Singer) and intends to quit his job to go back to school. His friend threatens to expose him if he dissolves their partnership. Boyce arrives in Mexico to terminate the operation personally, but the Soviets advise him that quitting won’t be that easy.

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Production history 
Falcon and the Snowman: A True Story of Friendship and Espionage was a 1979 book by Robert Lindsey, Los Angeles bureau chief for the New York Times. Lindsey covered the trial of Christopher Boyce, a 24-year-old who became disillusioned with his job at TRW Credit, downloading data from a Pine Gap satellite tracking station in Australia. Boyce used a childhood friend to sell the information to the Soviets. Tried for treason, Boyce remained unrepentant, even after he was sentenced to 40 years in prison.

Lindsey sold the film rights to Hemdale Films, which partnered with Orion Pictures to distribute the movie. Director John Schlesinger was offered the project. To adapt a script, Schlesinger hired a screenwriter named Steven Zaillian, who was not much older than Boyce. Zaillian was working as an apprentice editor on schlock like Breaker Breaker when he began writing scripts, one of which came to Schlesinger’s attention. The Falcon and the Snowman became Zaillian’s first produced script.

Shooting commenced in December 1983. Budgeted at $11.5 million, much of the film was shot at Churubusco Studios in Mexico City to shave costs. The film garnered good reviews and had a strong opening week at the box office, until competition from other movies in January 1985 quickly buried it. Schlesinger later blamed the weak reception on the fact that he “didn’t have time within the context of the movie to deal sufficiently with Hutton’s youth, to set up the complexity of his motives.”

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This isn’t a great movie. As Schlesinger realized too late, even 131 minutes ended up being not enough time to clearly convey Boyce’s motives, lend his personal relationships depth, or tell a complete story. In spite of its flaws, The Falcon and the Snowman is at its center a riveting espionage tale, one that pushes against the political climate of its time, and features a brilliant performance by Sean Penn.

In its condensed format, the film version of Lindsey’s book makes the affable Timothy Hutton a co-star in his own movie, while Lori Singer and Pat Hingle are reduced to walk-on parts. It’s Penn’s portrayal of a squeaky voiced drug smuggler coming unwound with paranoia that makes the film worth seeking out. You can hear him channeling Robert DeNiro, but it’s riveting work. Schlesinger – director of Midnight Cowboy and Sunday Bloody Sunday – was not at his peak here, but the film is exciting.

The movie doesn’t mention it, but Christopher Boyce escaped from Lompoc Federal Penitentiary in 1980. Robert Lindsey’s sequel The Flight of the Falcon chronicled Boyce’s 19 months on the run and the global manhunt that ensued. Andrew Daulton Lee was paroled in 1998, and went to work as a personal assistant for Sean Penn, who had kept in contact with the convict since meeting him in 1983.

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© Joe Valdez

Tags: Based on book · Father/son relationship · Interrogation · Paranoia

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Tupper Lake // Mar 23, 2010 at 12:06 pm

    This is a great flick, they did a good job in a complicated genre. Though there is one thing I didn’t understand, did the Mexican cops who arrested Lee actually think he was a killer or were they working with the US? My friend said the US told the Mexicans he was a killer so they would go hard on him.

  • 2 donwreford // Feb 18, 2014 at 3:31 pm

    Boyce, has said he feels the CIA, and allied organizations will prevail as a force that will increase surveillance on the native population, such as the internet, parallel to the this, the population will become increasingly suspicious of our government and its motives.
    The problem with organizations as the CIA, is their ambivalent vision of why they exist? as the destruction of people throughout the world and the destruction of the environment, will become the problem as to what the question is, and what they are working towards.

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