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…

Imagine a plant that could think... Think!

The Avengers 4.12: Man-Eater of Surrey Green
Most remarked upon for Robert Banks-Stewart having “ripped it off” for 1976 Doctor Who story The Seeds of Doom, although, I’ve never been wholly convinced. Yes, there are significant similarities – an eccentric lady making who knows her botany, a wealthy businessman living in a stately home with an affinity for vegetation, an alien plant that takes possession of humans, a very violent henchman and a climax involving a now oversized specimen turning very nasty… Okay, maybe they’re onto something there… – but The Seeds of Doom is really good, while Man-Eater of Surrey Green is just… okay.

This isn't fun, it's scary and disgusting.

It (2017)
(SPOILERS) Imagine how pleased I was to learn that an E Nesbitt adaptation had rocketed to the top of the US charts, evidently using a truncated version of its original title, much like John Carter of Mars. Imagine my disappointment on rushing to the cinema and seeing not a Psammead in sight. Can anyone explain why It is doing such phenomenal business? It isn’t the Stephen King brand, which regular does middling-at-best box office. Is it the nostalgia factor (‘50s repurposed as the ‘80s, so tapping into the Stranger Things thing, complete with purloined cast member)? Or maybe that it is, for the most part, a “classier” horror movie, one that puts its characters first (at least for the first act or so), and so invites audiences who might otherwise shun such fare? Perhaps there is no clear and outright reason, and it’s rather a confluence of circumstances. Certainly, as a (mostly) non-horror buff, I was impressed by how well It tackled pretty much everything that wasn’t the hor…

You better watch what you say about my car. She's real sensitive.

Christine (1983)
(SPOILER) John Carpenter was quite open about having no particular passion to make Christine. The Thing had gone belly-up at the box office, and adapting a Stephen King seemed like a sure-fire way to make bank. Unfortunately, its reception was tepid. It may have seemed like a no-brainer – Duel’s demonic truck had put Spielberg on the map a decade earlier – but Carpenter discoveredIt was difficult to make it frightening”. More like Herbie, then. Indeed, the director is at his best in the build-up to unleashing the titular automobile, making the fudging of the third act all the more disappointing.

Don't worry about Steed, ducky. I'll see he doesn't suffer.

The Avengers 4.11: Two’s A Crowd
Oh, look. Another Steed doppelganger episode. Or is it? One might be similarly less than complimentary about Warren Mitchell dusting off his bungling Russian agent/ambassador routine (it obviously went down a storm with the producers; he previously played Keller in The Charmers and Brodny would return in The See-Through Man). Two’s A Crowd coasts on the charm of its leads and supporting performances (including Julian Glover), but it’s middling fare at best.

It could have been an accident. He decided to sip a surreptitious sup and slipped. Splash!

4.10 A Surfeit of H20
A great episode title (definitely one of the series’ top ten) with a storyline boasting all the necessary ingredients (strange deaths in a small village, eccentric supporting characters, Emma even utters the immortal “You diabolical mastermind, you!”), yet A Surfeit of H20 is unable to quite pull itself above the run of the mill.

Have no fear! Doc Savage is here!

Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze (1975)
(SPOILERS) Forget about The Empire Strikes Back, the cliffhanger ending of Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze had me on the edge of my seat for a sequel that never came. How could they do that to us (well, me)? This was of course, in the period prior to discernment and wisdom, when I had no idea Doc Savage was a terrible movie. I mean, it is, isn’t it? Well, it isn’t a great movie, but it has a certain indolent charm, in the manner of a fair few mid-‘70s SF and fantasy fare (Logan’s Run, The Land that Time Forgot) that had no conception the genre landscape was on the cusp of irrevocable change.

Why are you painting my house?

mother!
(SPOILERS) Darren Aronofsky has a reasonably-sized chin, but on this evidence, he’ll have reduced it to a forlorn stump with all that stroking in no time at all. And then set the remains alight. And then summoned it back into existence for a whole new round of stroking. mother! is a self-indulgent exercise in unabated tedium in the name of a BIG idea, one no amount of assertive psued-ing post-the-fact can turn into a masterpiece. Yes, that much-noted “F” cinemascore was well warranted.

Let the monsters kill each other.

Game of Thrones Season Seven
(SPOILERS) Column inches devoted to Game of Thrones, even in “respectable” publications, seems to increase exponentially with each new season, so may well reach critical mass with the final run. Groundswells of opinion duly become more evident, and as happens with many a show by somewhere around this point, if not a couple of years prior, Season Seven has seen many of the faithful turn on once hallowed storytelling, and at least in part, there’s good reason for that.

Some suggest the show has jumped the shark (or crashed the Wall); there were concerns over how much the pace increased last year, divested as it was of George RR Martin’s novels as a direct source, but this year’s succession of events make Six seem positively sluggish. I don’t think GoT has suddenly, resoundingly, lost it, and I’d argue there did need to be an increase in momentum (people are quick to forget how much moaning went on about seemingly nothing happening for long stretches of previ…

James Bond, who only has to make love to a woman and she starts to hear heavenly choirs singing.

Thunderball (1965)
Look up! Look down! Look out! Her comes the biggest Bond of all! So advised the poster for the fourth 007 cinematic feast. Biggest it most definitely was, but unfortunately in almost every other respect the finished film is inferior to its three predecessors. Nevertheless, the approach taken by the producers (a favourite of Hollywood generally) was to throw enough money at the screen in the hope it would result in higher box office receipts. Which proved a successful one on this occasion. It remains the highest grossing Bond film (inflation-adjusted), in the US.