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…

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

What ho, Brinkley. So, do you think we’re going to get along, what?

Jeeves and Wooster 2.4: Jeeves in the Country  (aka Chuffy)
The plundering of Thank You, Jeeves elicits two more of the series’ best episodes, the first of which finds Bertie retiring to the country with a new valet, the insolent, incompetent and inebriate Brinkley (a wonderfully sour, sullen performance from Fred Evans, who would receive an encore in the final season), owing to Jeeves being forced to resign over his master’s refusal to give up the trumpet (“not an instrument for a gentleman”; in the book, it’s a banjulele).

Chuffnall Hall is the setting (filmed at Wrotham Park in Hertfordshire), although the best of the action takes place around Bertie’s digs in Chuffnall Regis (Clovelly, Devon), which old pal Reginald “Chuffy” Chuffnell (Marmaduke Lord Chuffnell) has obligingly rented him, much to the grievance of the villagers, who have to endure his trumpeting disrupting the beatific beach (it’s a lovely spot, one of the most evocative in the series).

Jeeves is snapped up into the e…

What I have tried to show you is the inevitability of history. What must be, must be.

The Avengers 2.24: A Sense of History
Another gem, A Sense of History features one of the series’ very best villains in Patrick Mower’s belligerent, sneering student Duboys. Steed and Mrs Peel arrive at St Bode’s College investigating murder most cloistered, and the author of a politically sensitive theoretical document, in Martin Woodhouse’s final, and best, teleplay for the show (other notables include Mr. Teddy Bear and The Wringer).

Don't give me any of that intelligent life crap, just give me something I can blow up.

Dark Star (1974)
(SPOILERS) Is Dark Star more a John Carpenter film or more a Dan O’Bannon one? Until the mid ‘80s it might have seemed atypical of either of them, since they had both subsequently eschewed comedy in favour of horror (or thriller). And then they made Big Trouble in Little China and Return of the Living Dead respectively, and you’d have been none-the-wiser again. I think it’s probably fair to suggest it was a more personal film to O’Bannon, who took its commercial failure harder, and Carpenter certainly didn’t relish the tension their creative collaboration brought (“a duel of control” as he put it), as he elected not to work with his co-writer/ actor/ editor/ production designer/ special effects supervisor again. Which is a shame, as, while no one is ever going to label Dark Star a masterpiece, their meeting of minds resulted in one of the decade’s most enduring cult classics, and for all that they may have dismissed it/ seen only its negatives since, one of the best mo…

Ruination to all men!

The Avengers 24: How to Succeed…. At Murder
On the one hand, this episode has a distinctly reactionary whiff about it, pricking the bubble of the feminist movement, with Steed putting a female assassin over his knee and tickling her into submission. On the other, it has Steed putting a female assassin over his knee and tickling her into submission. How to Succeed… At Murder (a title play on How to Succeed at Business Without Really Trying, perhaps) is often very funny, even if you’re more than a little aware of the “wacky” formula that has been steadily honed over the course of the fourth season.

You just keep on drilling, sir, and we'll keep on killing.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)
(SPOILERS) The drubbing Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk received really wasn’t unfair. I can’t even offer it the “brave experiment” consolation on the basis of its use of a different frame rate – not evident in itself on 24fps Blu ray, but the neutering effect of the actual compositions is, and quite tellingly in places – since the material itself is so lacking. It’s yet another misguided (to be generous to its motives) War on Terror movie, and one that manages to be both formulaic and at times fatuous in its presentation.

The irony is that Ang Lee, who wanted Billy Lynn to feel immersive and realistic, has made a movie where nothing seems real. Jean-Christophe Castelli’s adaptation of Ben Fountain’s novel is careful to tread heavily on every war movie cliché it can muster – and Vietnam War movie cliché at that – as it follows Billy Lynn (British actor Joe Alwyn) and his unit (“Bravo Squad”) on a media blitz celebrating their heroism in 2004 Iraq …

This here's a bottomless pit, baby. Two-and-a-half miles straight down.

The Abyss (1989)
(SPOILERS) By the time The Abyss was released in late summer ’89, I was a card carrying James Cameron fanboy (not a term was in such common use then, thankfully). Such devotion would only truly fade once True Lies revealed the stark, unadulterated truth of his filmmaking foibles. Consequently, I was an ardent Abyss apologist, railing at suggestions of its flaws. I loved the action, found the love story affecting, and admired the general conceit. So, when the Special Edition arrived in 1993, with its Day the Earth Stood Still-invoking global tsunami reinserted, I was more than happy to embrace it as a now-fully-revealed masterpiece.

I still see the Special Edition as significantly better than the release version (whatever quality concerns swore Cameron off the effects initially, CGI had advanced sufficiently by that point;certainly, the only underwhelming aspect is the surfaced alien craft, which was deemed suitable for the theatrical release), both dramatically and them…

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 …