Film Review: The Falcon and the Snowman


I was discussing grittier spy movies with a member of my gaming group and this film was recommended to me. It's one of those movies that I have a vague recollection of - it might be from hearing the basics of the events this film is based on or it might be from catching it on television. Released in 1985 it is based on events that happened in the 1970s (which is when it takes place).

Timothy Hutton and Sean Penn play Christopher Boyce and Daulton Lee, young adults who have a friendship going back to childhood back when they were altar boys together. Boyce has just dropped out of the seminary and his father gets him a job at RTX, a government contractor. Despite having only a high school diploma, Boyce is very bright and does well at the company - and having an ex-FBI guy as father helps. He eventually gets assigned to the "Black Vault" stores top secret documents and receives secret transmissions. Boyce becomes very disillusioned as CIA teletype transmissions are occasionally erroneously sent to RTX and he learns of plots against foreign governments.

Daulton Lee is a drug smuggler, often brining drugs across the border from Mexico. He is extremely high strung, something which his growing dependency on cocaine and later heroin does not help with. Boyce, wanting to take some action against the CIA, enlists Lee's help, having him sell the information he has access to at RTX's Black Vault to the Soviet Union. Lee does this via the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City.

The film is an extremely engaging experience. It is not an action packed thriller. Boyce and Lee are kids from wealthy family who get in way over their heads. Lee is the only contact the Soviets have, Boyce not dealing with them directly. Their Soviet handler, Alex, is expertly played by David Suchet. He doesn't make appeals to doing the right thing, he doesn't praise communism or demonize the United States - he's a very practical man. It's a business transaction to him. But when he finally meets Boyce, Boyce is at the point he wants out. Boyce complains that he's not a professional, something Alex rebukes, telling him they became professionals the instant they took money in return for secrets.

We also see some exercises in tradecraft, something Lee is no good at all, sometimes messing up the signal for a meeting, frequently breaking protocol and going directly to the Soviet embassy. Alex and the embassy staff grow to quickly despise Lee.

Hutton and Penn give stellar performances. Hutton plays Boyce as a young American man who has brains, good looks, who seems to have everything going for him - despite his inability to really get his life going after high school. I greatly disliked Penn's Lee, but in a good way - I feel I was supposed to dislike him. He can't keep his mouth shut, jokes at parties that he's selling secrets to the KGB. He's extremely high strung with an elevated sense of his own performance.

It seems amazing that the pair would be motivated to sell secrets to the USSR - Boyce's frustration with the CIA and government is absolutely understandable, but he takes one hell of a leap to begin selling secrets. Not that is isn't believable in the context of the film - the film really sells the idea that the two made this decision - and it brutally shows the consequences of selling out your country.

From a gaming perspective, it gives a great view on the types of people who might sell out their country. From that perspective, the most sympathetic character is Alex, presented as a professional who wants to do his job but is forced having to deal with the high-strung and unreliable Lee.

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