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The falcon and the snowman.

Born in the U.S.A., christopher Boyce and Daulton Lee did what any red-blooded American lad in the 1970s would do if given half a chance: drop out of community college, deal drugs, romp with wildlife and sell state secrets to the Russians. Nothing surprising there, and it was the very banality of their lives and times that Robert Lindsey captured in his extraordinary account of their exploits, The Falcon and the Snowman. It was probably the best book of reportage about post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, postradical America, an elusive era of transition from idealism to cynicism, collective endeavor to private ambition, raised consciousness to lowered expectations. Boyce and Lee were caught in a highly specific yet broadly metaphoric frame on that swift trajectory: the almost-paradise of an oceanfront Los Angeles suburb, wedged between the data and defense towns, the Mexican Third World and the empty, beckoning desert. It was all there--whatever it was--and Lindsey was able to give it form and meaning by a meticulous attention to description, detail and story.

Director John Schlesigner and screen-writer Steven Zaillian appropriated the mass of material about Boyce and Lee, their history and surroundings, their fancies and delights. But where the book makes sense, the movie makes mishmash. This is not, after all, a simple tale of espionage, adolescent delinquency or flight and capture. It is an anti-epic of America set in a small community during a brief moment in the lives of a few people, but it needs time and space to make its complex and subtle points. The movie develops a plot but does not adequately create a mood, a morality or a motivation. It's all there, but the form and meaning are missing.

Boyce (Timothy hutton), the brooding, hypersensitive underachiever, lived on the lower limits of the upper-middle-class Palos Verdes suburban tract. His father (Pat Hingle) was an ex-F.B.I. agent with enough connections in the security industry to get his son an entry-level job at the TRW plant just up the coast. Boyce swept floors and sorted mail and then, inexplicably, was handed a desk job with access to the Black Vault, holiest of holies in the intelligence system, where C.I.A. messages and military secrets were received and stored. Boyce learned about spy satellites and destabilization strategies, but it was not all cloak and dagger in the Vault. Much of the time he and his colleagues (a surly black Vietnam vet and a floozy secretary) partied and boozed among the secrets. Boyce's assignment was to bring in the makings of orange blossoms, peppermint schnapps and daiquiris to be blended in the papershredding machine.

Lee (Sean Penn) was the blustering, bragging son of a professionally important physician. He and Boyce had been alter boys at the local Catholic Church, but their falls from grace had taken the two into somewhat different pastimes. Boyce took up falconry; Lee dealt marijuana and cocaine. He also used a lot of both substances himself and drove fast sports cars along the cliffs of the coast. Sometimes he drove them into stationary objects or other cars.

Boyce's systemic alienation was not assuaged by a steady job, and his discomfort in the American wasteland was hardly eased by what he heard in the Vault. No only was his country spying in space, but it appeared that the C.I.A. had overthrown the leftish government of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in Australia because Whitlam refused to cooperate in joint intelligence operations. Just at that fortuitous point Lee was a fugitive from bail in a coke bust, and the two old altar boys teamed up to betray their country and make some cash. Boyce gave Lee a briefcaseful of TRW secrets and sent his friend to push them to the Russians in their Mexico City embassy.

The story of Lee's strung-out deals, Boyce's adventures in the Black Vault, the politics, the morality and the falconry was obviously the stuff of cinema, but its expression on the screen presented serious problems. First was Boyce himself, a blank antihero whose motivations were muddled and whose conscience was confused in that peculiarly California way. Was it that housing developments were destroying the range and habitat of wild birds? That there was no meaningful work left in Sun Belt America? That the church had failed to establish its moral legitimacy? That the government was run by liars and scoundrels? The director and screenwriter wanted to suggest all of the above, and they filled their movie with snippets and swatches of mid-1970s Americana to deliver the message: clips of the televised Watergate hearings, football cheerleaders, disco parties, consumption fetishism, barbecues, birding and drugging. Images, images: but no ideas to provide a framework.

Because blankness is so hard to convey, the filmmakers concentrated their best efforts on the rough-textured Lee, whose affect was as jagged as Boyce's was flat. In Lindsey's journalism, Lee is a scummy lout, weaselly but not bright, aggressive but not powerful. In Sean Penn's embodiment, Lee is enormously compelling for all his faults, and more interesting and more fun to watch than the simpering Boyce. Penn's presence as an actor--a star--is apparent from his first appearance, in profile, unspeaking, at a sleazy Mexican bar. Hutton has all he can do to stay on screen until the final scene. That's ordinary acting, but it's worse writing and directing.

The decision--by default or design--to elevate Lee over Boyce defeated the possibility of giving coherence to The Falcon and the Snowman. If this was to be a movie about America, it had to be Boyce's tale, a story of deformed dreams, twisted visions, partial insights and hopeless causes. The country may not be a political expression of Boyce's symbolic falcon but neither is it, or not yet, like Lee, a turkey.
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Author:Kopkind, Andrew
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Mar 9, 1985
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