Skip to main content

I freely chose my response to this absurd world. If given the opportunity, I would have been more vigorous.


The Falcon and the Snowman
(1985)

(SPOILERS) I suspect, if I hadn’t been ignorant of the story of Christopher Boyce and Andrew Daulton Lee selling secrets to the Soviets during the ‘70s, I’d have found The Falcon and the Snowman less engaging than I did. Which is to say that John Schlesinger’s film has all the right ingredients to be riveting, including a particularly camera-hogging performance from Sean Penn (as Lee), but it’s curiously lacking in narrative drive. Only fitfully does it channel the motives of its protagonists and their ensuing paranoia. As such, the movie makes a decent primer on the case, but I ended up wondering if it might not be ideal fodder for retelling as a miniseries.


Boyce leaves the seminary and a prospective career in the priesthood in the opening scene, which might be an early cue that he’s prone to question and find dissatisfying any authoritarian system (he doesn’t get on with his ex-FBI father either, played by Pat Hingle: “Once FBI, always FBI. He’s alright” comments Boyce’s new colleague Gene (Dorian Harewood) on meeting dad). Dad gets him a job with a civilian defence contractor, and Chris ends up working the Black Vault, an unofficial communications centre for surveillance satellites. There, he routes communiques, including regularly mis-sent ones bound for CIA Langley that include “details of CIA covert action that have nothing to do with national security”.


More specifically, the activity that gets Boyce’s goat is the revelation that the CIA plans to oust the Australian Prime Minister Whitham, who has made clear his country won’t be a stooge for the US and UK and has even – unforgivably – questioned the appropriateness of the CIA presence at Pine Gap. Steven Zaillian’s screenplay (his first produced, adapted from Robert Lindsay’s book) doesn’t go into that much detail concerning Whitham, another reason, since this side of the story is fascinating, that a broader, interweaving adaption might be illuminating (another Stephen – Gaghan – might be the one to deliver on such an approach).


So Boyce sets Lee, childhood friend and fellow altar boy, and now a rather weasely drug dealer, as the go-between with the Russian Embassy in Mexico (represented by a terrific David Suchet, as Alex; you can feel him oozing quiet intolerance for this dishevelled, impossible, undisciplined Yank).


Part of the problem with The Falcon and the Snowman is that you never quite feel Schlesinger is engaging with its themes. He spends a great deal of time on Lee (apparently, the director and star’s relationship grew steadily worse over the course of the shoot), who has no moral compass and whose motivation is entirely pecuniary (when it isn’t substance-related), and Boyce ends up getting short shrift as a consequence. Penn’s performance is something else, of course, and nothing if not entertaining, with a physical transformation as noteworthy as his other drug-fuelled diversion in Carlito’s Way nearly a decade later.


Schlesinger said “It’s not so much what they did as why that interests me. Without condoning their actions, we explore what was going on in their heads –and in the world around – in the early seventies”. But as Pauline Kael, in a customarily scathing review, noted, he doesn’t really reach his goal (although, Kael suggests “Schlesinger wants to shock the hell out of us by justifying Boyce’s actions”. I don’t think he does; if he did, he’d provide far more than the detail than we’re granted in a couple of brief exchanges). At least, not for Boyce. Lee’s an open book.


Kael really didn’t like Penn’s turn, comparing unflatteringly to “Rupert Pupkin’s little brother”, and going on to label it “an embarrassment – the kind of fanatic actor’s performance that’s obvious and empty in a way that’s bound to be compared admiringly to De Niro’s run of bum work”. I’d certainly agree Penn’s hamming it up, but that’s exactly what Lee’s self-aggrandising cokehead needs. As such, far from being a “self-conscious catastrophe” his approach almost entirely fits the role, such that exactly the effect she describes of his scenes with Suchet (and Boris Leskin) – they “seem to be the only ones who know what they’re doing, the only sane and responsible people in the movie” – is surely the intended one.


But the knock on of Penn’s performance is that you have no absolutely no idea why Boyce trusts him. Equipped with zero insight into their relationship before Lee was a druggie, it’s difficult to construe any depth to their friendship. Lee has the bravado, Boyce the shrewdness, but there’s no meeting of minds. Initially, Lee suggests making the information public:

Boyce: No, no, no. You can’t get any more public than what happened in Chile. People still don’t believe we engineered that.
Lee: He was a socialist.
Boyce: He was elected.


We’re only privy to Boyce’s thoughts on a couple of occasions, which would be fine if Schlesinger communicated them by other means, but he seems more concerned with the (admittedly fine) falcon flying sequences and (entirely redundant) relationship with Lori Singer’s Lana. We’re left scrambling around for nuggets. If the idea was that Boyce wasn’t really sure why he was doing it, that would have been entirely legitimate. Instead, we move rapidly from surprise that the plan is actually going ahead to disillusionment with his contacts (“They’re just as paranoid and dangerous as we are. I can’t imagine why I thought they’d be any different”) to setting out his now solidified grand perspective:

FBI Interrogator: Who did you receive your instructions from?
Boyce: My conscience… I know a few things about predatory behaviour. What was once a legitimate intelligence gathering agency is now being misused to prey on weaker governments.


When Hutton’s giving us Boyce the observer (watching Gene’s rant at a drinks evening, disagreeing with everything he’s saying but keeping it to himself), or Boyce the stoic (in the final scenes when he’s arrested, and then the calm demeanour of his interview), or dealing with the arrival of the CIA inspector, or his assuredness when meeting with Alex, you get an insight into his character, but they’re inconsistent moments (Time Out’s Chris Peachment suggested “Hutton succumbs firstly to a thin role, and secondly to the film’s lack of any strong viewpoint about its leading men”). Hutton’s good (now he’s a freemason, he probably doesn’t identify so strongly with his anti-establishment character), so the extent to which Boyce is overly enigmatic is down to his director rather than performance.


Nevertheless, while I can readily see something of the deficiencies of The Falcon and the Snowman, I wouldn’t characterise it as a “thuddingly emphatic, elaborately edited mosaic” or even that “the performances begin to look like exercises in making bricks without much straw” (The Film Yearbook Volume 4). There are definite problems, not least a frequently ineffectual and inappropriate score (although Bowie’s This is Not America, the main reason I was aware of the film, despite never having managed to see it until now, adds an appropriately haunted aspect whenever it fades in), and I wondered if some material didn’t end up on the cutting room floor (Michael Ironside has one scene as an FBI guy), but to be glass half full about it, this is at least a half decent movie.


Nevertheless, there are a number of ways The Falcon and the Snowman might have been made wholly decent. Certainly, the question of whose actions were more wrong – the state, or the individual who chose to respond to the state’s corruption – would be better serviced by an aforementioned broader canvas (because, ultimately, it isn’t just about what they did, but also the machinations of the system they did it against). It would help to have a filmmaker with a clear point of view too, be that polemical (Oliver Stone in his prime, maybe) or a chillier, docu-drama approach (a la Alan J Pakula). Kael served Schlesinger the stinging rebuke, “It’s his failure to be involved on the simplest level”. Mind you, she ran down Marathon Man in the same breath, which is top-drawer schlock.




Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Espionage isn’t a game, it’s a war.

The Avengers 3.3: The Nutshell
Philip Chambers first teleplay (of two) for the series, and Raymond Menmuir’s second (also of two) as director, The Nutshell is an effective little whodunit in which Steed (again) poses as a bad guy, and Cathy (again) appears to be at loggerheads with him. The difference here is how sustained the pretence is, though; we aren’t actually in on the details until the end, and the whole scenario is played decidedly straight.

Set mostly in a bunker (the Nutshell of the title), quarter of a mile underground and providing protection for the “all the best people” (civil servants bunk on level 43; Steed usually gets off at the 18th) in the event of a thermo-nuclear onslaught, the setting is something of a misdirection, since it is also a convenient place to store national security archives, known as Big Ben (Bilateral Infiltration Great Britain, Europe and North America). Big Ben has been stolen. Or rather, the microfilm with details of all known double agents on bot…

This is no time for puns! Even good ones.

Mr. Peabody and Sherman (2014)
Perhaps I've done DreamWorks Animation (SKG, Inc., etc.) a slight injustice. The studio has been content to run an assembly line of pop culture raiding, broad-brush properties and so-so sequels almost since its inception, but the cracks in their method have begun to show more overtly in recent years. They’ve been looking tired, and too many of their movies haven’t done the business they would have liked. Yet both their 2014 deliveries, How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Mr. Peabody & Sherman, take their standard approach but manage to add something more. Dragon 2 has a lot of heart, which one couldn’t really say about Peabody (it’s more sincere elements feel grafted on, and largely unnecessary). Peabody, however, is witty, inventive and pacey, abounding with sight gags and clever asides while offering a time travel plotline that doesn’t talk down to its family audience.

I haven’t seen the The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, from which Mr. Peabody & Sh…

I know what I'm gonna do tomorrow, and the next day, and the next year, and the year after that.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
It’s a Wonderful Life is an unassailable classic, held up as an embodiment of true spirit of Christmas and a testament to all that is good and decent and indomitable in humanity. It deserves its status, even awash with unabashed sentimentality that, for once, actually seems fitting. But, with the reams of plaudits aimed at Frank Capra’s most enduring film, it is also worth playing devil’s advocate for a moment or two. One can construe a number of not nearly so life-affirming undercurrents lurking within it, both intentional and unintentional on the part of its director. And what better time to Grinch-up such a picture than when bathed in the warmth of a yuletide glow?

The film was famously not a financial success on initial release, as is the case with a number of now hallowed movies, its reputation burgeoning during television screenings throughout the 1970s. Nevertheless, It’s a Wonderful Life garnered a brace of Oscar nominations including Best Picture and…

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

He’d been clawed to death, as though by some bird. Some huge, obscene bird.

The Avengers 5.6: The Winged Avenger
Maybe I’m just easily amused, such that a little Patrick Macnee uttering “Ee-urp!” goes a long way, but I’m a huge fan of The Winged Avenger. It’s both a very silly episode and about as meta as the show gets, and one in which writer Richard Harris (1.3: Square Root of Evil, 1.10: Hunt the Man Down) succeeds in casting a wide net of suspects but effectively keeps the responsible party’s identity a secret until late in the game.

Dirty is exactly why you're here.

Sicario 2: Soldado aka Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018)
(SPOILERS) I wasn't among the multitude greeting the first Sicario with rapturous applause. It felt like a classic case of average material significantly lifted by the diligence of its director (and cinematographer and composer), but ultimately not all that. Any illusions that this gritty, violent, tale of cynicism and corruption – all generally signifiers of "realism" – in waging the War on Drugs had a degree of credibility well and truly went out the window when we learned that Benicio del Toro's character Alejandro Gillick wasn't just an unstoppable kickass ninja hitman; he was a grieving ex-lawyer turned unstoppable kickass ninja hitman. Sicario 2: Soldadograzes on further difficult-to-digest conceits, so in that respect is consistent, and – ironically – in some respects fares better than its predecessor through being more thoroughly genre-soaked and so avoiding the false doctrine of "revealing" …

Ah yes, the legendary 007 wit, or at least half of it.

The World is Not Enough (1999)
(SPOILERS) The last Bond film of the 20th century unfortunately continues the downward trend of the Brosnan era, which had looked so promising after the reinvigorated approach to Goldeneye. The World is Not Enough’s screenplay posseses a number of strong elements (from the now ever present Robert Wade and Neal Purvis, and a sophomore Bruce Feirstein), some of which have been recycled in the Craig era, but they’ve been mashed together with ill-fitting standard Bond tropes that puncture any would-be substance (Bond’s last line before the new millennium is one Roger Moore would have relished). And while a structure that stop-starts doesn’t help the overall momentum any, nor does the listlessness of drama director Michael Apted, such that when the sporadic bursts of action do arrive there’s no disguising the joins between first and second unit, any prospect of thrills evidently unsalvageable in the edit.

Taking its cues from the curtailed media satire of Tomorr…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …