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…

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…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Must the duck be here?

The Favourite (2018)
(SPOILERS) In my review of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, I suggested The Favourite might be a Yorgos Lanthimos movie for those who don’t like Yorgos Lanthimos movies. At least, that’s what I’d heard. And certainly, it’s more accessible than either of his previous pictures, the first two thirds resembling a kind of Carry On Up the Greenaway, but despite these broader, more slapstick elements and abundant caustic humour, there’s a prevailing detachment on the part of the director, a distancing oversight that rather suggests he doesn’t feel very much for his subjects, no matter how much they emote, suffer or connive. Or pratfall.

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

I'm a sort of travelling time expert.

Doctor Who Season 12 – Worst to Best
Season 12 isn’t the best season of Doctor Who by any means, but it’s rightly recognised as one of the most iconic, and it’s easily one of the most watchable. Not so much for its returning roster of monsters – arguably, only one of them is in finest of fettle – as its line-up of TARDIS crew members. Who may be fellow travellers, but they definitely aren’t “mates”. Thank goodness. Its popularity – and the small matters of it being the earliest season held in its entirety in original broadcast form, and being quite short – make it easy to see why it was picked for the first Blu-ray boxset.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

You look like an angry lizard!

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
(SPOILERS) I can quite see a Queen fan begrudging this latest musical biopic for failing to adhere to the facts of their illustrious career – but then, what biopic does steer a straight and true course? – making it ironic that they're the main fuel for Bohemian Rhapsody's box office success. Most other criticisms – and they're legitimate, on the whole – fall away in the face of a hugely charismatic star turn from Rami Malek as the band's frontman. He's the difference between a standard-issue, episodic, join-the-dots narrative and one that occasionally touches greatness, and most importantly, carries emotional heft.

Whoever comes, I'll kill them. I'll kill them all.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) There’s no guessing he’s back. John Wick’s return is most definite and demonstrable, in a sequel that does what sequels ought in all the right ways, upping the ante while never losing sight of the ingredients that made the original so formidable. John Wick: Chapter 2 finds the minimalist, stripped-back vehicle and character of the first instalment furnished with an elaborate colour palette and even more idiosyncrasies around the fringes, rather like Mad Max in that sense, and director Chad Stahleski (this time without the collaboration of David Leitch, but to no discernible deficit) ensures the action is filled to overflowing, but with an even stronger narrative drive that makes the most of changes of gear, scenery and motivation.

The result is a giddily hilarious, edge-of-the-seat thrill ride (don’t believe The New York Times review: it is not “altogether more solemn” I can only guess Jeannette Catsoulis didn’t revisit the original in the interven…

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.