In the “Class of …” series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating either their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1995 and six from 1985. The rules: No Oscar nominees and no films among either year’s top-10 grossers.
Christopher Boyce and Andrew Daulton Lee? Boy, that’s one hell of a story.
Boyce and Lee were a Californian pair of best friends cradled in Catholicism and white-collar wealth since birth — the former an anxious, skeptical son of a former FBI agent turned civilian contractor, the latter adopted by an elite family against whom he bristled with would-be drug trafficking and definite drug abuse.
In 1977, they were convicted of selling state secrets to the Soviet Union. Boyce instigated the scheme, using his top-secret clearance at a classified communications center to copy code ciphers and communiqués. Fleeing a stateside drug charge, Lee delivered the goods to contacts he created at Mexico’s Russian embassy. The operation, which involved mostly useless intelligence, netted them $70,000 … plus 40 years for Boyce and a life sentence for Lee, mainly due to his prior convictions.
Both were remanded to a federal pen in Lompoc, Calif., where, in 1980, Boyce escaped by hiding in a hole, cutting barbed wire and scaling a wall on a homemade ladder. He took a new name, robbed 17 banks and studied aviation. Some say he intended to flee to the USSR where an army commission awaited. Others, Boyce among them, say he intended to aerially jailbreak Lee, who had since been moved to a facility in Terre Haute, Ind.
Why did Boyce forsake Lee when escaping? Did his guilt over leaving his friend behind — for a crime into which he lured him — haunt him? And if Boyce intended to flee to the USSR, why did he think they’d welcome him with anything but a bullet for the garbage (their word) that he and Lee fed them? It’s also alleged that the friends’ lifelong kinship ended after Lee was moved to Indiana. Why, exactly?
Boyce spent nearly two years on the lam until his bank-robbing buddies ratted him out and he was arrested in Washington State in 1981. His fresh 65-year sentence meant he would be 93 years old when he finally got out. Meanwhile, Lee won parole in 1998 and became a personal assistant to Sean Penn.
For every wild, weird turn in this three-decade whale of a tale (Boyce received parole in 2002), the last bit makes the most sense. That’s because Penn played Lee in 1985’s The Falcon and the Snowman, director John Schlesinger’s mostly engaging, somewhat dry biopic that ends at the moment when the real-life saga became most intriguing.
Such a coda likely would have proven more dramatically compelling than the predictable zero-sum conclusion of dead-end dreams seen here. But just as it’s unfair to take aim at contemporary biopics such as The Imitation Game, Selma or American Sniper for what their historical fiction may omit or distort, it’s also unfair to review the movie one may wish The Falcon and the Snowman to be.
Taken on its own terms, the film works up a mild perturbation over America’s tendency to persecute low-stakes patsies like Boyce and Lee while true crooks get a pass. Early on, Boyce can only laugh off Ford’s pardoning of Nixon, for he, and his entire generation, would otherwise cry. It also illustrates our nation’s timeless, and perhaps foolhardy, geopolitical myopia. Boyce concocts the plot after his station receives a CIA communication implying its involvement in deposing Australian Prime Minster Gough Whitlam — who opposed U.S. military presence in his country and wanted to pull his nation’s troops from Vietnam. Boyce considers going to the press before remembering few cared about a U.S.-sponsored coup d’état in Chile, after which Augusto Pinochet killed and tortured thousands of dissenters. Four decades later, and with an even more vastly intertwined global economic system, little has changed in our out-of-sight, out-of-mind perception. Only when today’s power vacuums become tomorrow’s clear and present danger do we fear them.
Among the glut of 1985’s many Cold War-centric films, The Falcon and the Snowman certainly pencils out the most detailed political sketch — avoiding pulp (Invasion U.S.A.), parody (Spies Like Us), melodrama (White Nights) or a playground portrayal of good versus evil, entertaining as it may be (Rocky IV). But it also supposes Boyce and Lee’s decisions came less from demonstrable political activism than the rush of sticking it to institutional and familial men. Neither does it suggest a psychological angle or headline-grabbing cachet of wanting to get caught. These were simply over-privileged kids in search of anarchic outlets to stave off Baby Boomer expectations; in fact, Falcon’s earliest moments play like a 10-years-later, buddy-movie interpretation of disaffected ennui in The Graduate. Boyce later claimed he did what he did in hopes of fomenting peace with the Soviets, and that he sees modern-day secret leakers like Edward Snowden as patriots. However, Boyce comes off not as a misguided idealist but someone who took dorm-room poster rebellion a bridge too far and Lee as a starry-eyed dreamer along for the ride.
Falcon also never truly gets under the skin of his friendship with Lee, to which we’re not even introduced until it’s nearly 20 years old — when Boyce has left the seminary and Lee has returned from his most Tijuana drug run. (“I could have gone to confession … and told the truth!,” Lee whines.) As such, the moments when these pals fracture and start to sabotage each other play less like the betrayals of blood brothers and more like the work of petty, puerile pranksters. There’s also an oddly smoothed-out score courtesy of jazz guitarist Pat Metheny that has aged as well as a bottle of Bartles and Jaymes left open for 30 years, perfunctory work from Lori Singer as Boyce’s left-behind girlfriend, and an odd intrusion of 1980s fashion into a story that’s set primarily in 1974.
However, there’s plenty to recommend about The Falcon and the Snowman, which takes its title from Robert Lindsey’s 1979 book about the case and Boyce & Lee’s respective codenames. (“Snowman” goes unmentioned but is plainly analogous to cocaine, while “Falcon” refers to Boyce’s oft-visualized love of falconry.) That’s largely thanks to the promise shown in the early work of a big-time Hollywood writer and two terrific performances from Penn and Timothy Hutton (as Boyce).
Today, Steven Zaillian is among Hollywood’s most prolific writers, comfortably and confidently bouncing from blockbusters (Mission: Impossible) to prestige pictures (Schindler’s List, for which he won an Oscar) and, more recently, such tony literary adaptations as Moneyball and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. His first-ever screenplay here lacks his later work’s nuances and textures, but he demonstrates a confidence to avoid heavy-lifting symbolism; a very brief spoken excerpt from Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” hangs like an albatross around Boyce. He also displays sure-handed command over bracing intensity, as much of the film feels like a race to see which man will most swiftly ascend too close to the sun.
Boyce conducts his work in the Black Vault — a windowless cinderblock tomb in the bowels of an office complex that, as a chapel of secrecy, is no less dogmatic than the priesthood he left behind. However, every hour is cocktail hour. (Co-workers literally blend margaritas in the shredder.) While these unchecked frat-house shenanigans allow Boyce to get away with espionage, they also make him sloppy. It doesn’t dawn on him that making copies at work will leave just enough rope with which to hang himself, and a close-call visit from a punctilious supervisor turns Boyce into a strung-out sweatbox eager to escape the tangled web he’s woven. (That Boyce carried on so long making copies at work undiscovered is its own indictment.)
Falcon was neither the first nor the last film in which Hutton, then already an Oscar winner for Ordinary People, explored the emotional tumult of notorious American spies. Two years earlier, he played a fictionalized son of characters based on executed American spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in Sidney Lumet’s Daniel. And in a TV movie 13 years later, he’d play Aldrich Ames — a former CIA agent whose treasonous activities began around the time Falcon started filming and who, unlike Lee, is serving his life sentence with no possibility for parole.
Here, Hutton uses inherently wholesome looks to his advantage — an all-American visage masking a restlessness with the rigid establishment with which he’s expected to roll. It also becomes a canvas for smug superiority once the shit hits the fan. “Money’s never really been real important to me,” Boyce quips with affected tough talk and cigarette-smoking detachment as he’s being interrogated by G-men. Who would argue that this was merely something in which he dabbled amid entitled drudgery? Even if “Falcon” doesn’t go as far with this idea as it could, Hutton suggests an affinity for, and facility with, behavioral artifice that jives with the discrepancies in Boyce’s real-life story.
Meanwhile, Lee is a clumsy, paranoiac time bomb who can’t keep his mouth (or his nose) from running. He breathlessly, and fruitlessly, tries to establish dominance over his Russian contacts, blustering up his outlaw legacy with so much hubris that he begins to buy his own BS. When Lee filibusters, which is often, it’s as if he’s trying to fill the air until he discovers some small nugget of actual confidence within himself. (Veteran character actor David Suchet excels as a Russian spider that has welcomed, and drained, all manner of flies inside his parlor, and easily exploits both Lee and Boyce.)
But there’s also a more inherent poignancy to Lee’s involvement that is lacking from Boyce’s. Stupid he may be, but Lee knows he’s a screw-up and implores his younger teenaged brother (’80s movie mainstay Chris Makepeace) to make good for both of them. Plus, we see Lee’s pathetic puniness at its nadir just before the death knell of their scheme — a scattered mess of dog-eared pulp novels and true-crime espionage exposés littered in his hotel room, highlighted as though they were study guides.
Penn endows Lee with the same spindly, enraged energy Dustin Hoffman gave to Ratso Rizzo in Schlesinger’s signature film, “Midnight Cowboy,” and this is an early iteration of the loose, sparking, wire Penn has specialized in — most notably in Carlito’s Way and Mystic River. Had he not become a believable leading actor, it’s not hard to imagine he could have been the 1980s’ answer to John Cazale. But Penn also finds subtle (if bleak) comic notes in Lee, as well as a slight sympathy for exactly where he stands in his symbiotic relationship with Boyce. Lee’s wildly irrational dream of retiring to Costa Rica feels as if Jeff Spicoli forgot his weed at home one day and paid enough attention in economics to consider the spoils of entrepreneurship but not the skills. And note the contrast of Boyce’s civil interrogation to the brutal beating Lee receives — dangled as he is by his friend to do the more dangerous dirty work for years. “I am a tourist! I am a businessman! I am a Republican!” Lee squeaks under duress in the film’s best scene; unlike the comparatively clean Boyce, Lee is simply too far gone for any of those affiliations to matter, however tenuously true.
Were Christopher Boyce and Andrew Daulton Lee really “the most wanted men in America for 18 months” as a trailer for The Falcon and the Snowman suggests? Possibly, but this telling of their tale lacks that implied urgency or immediacy. Even as the walls close in, their stress never feels contagious to the audience or takes on dimensions of either tragedy or true disillusionment. It’s a watchable, likely accurate recitation of facts. But in the case of the Falcon and the Snowman, the truth we haven’t seen onscreen may be stranger, and stronger, than the historical fiction created.