Lifelong friends and former altar boys Christopher Boyce (Timothy Hutton) and Daulton Lee (Sean Penn) come from wealthy Californian families. After abandoning seminary school, Chris lands a job through his father's (Pat Hingle) connections at a civil defense contractor working in the so-called 'Black Vault', a secure communication facility through which flows information on classified U.S. Intelligence operations around the world. On reading a misrouted communiqué detailing the CIA's plan to depose the Prime Minister of Australia, Chris rapidly grows disillusioned with his government's duplicity. In retaliation he decides to sell classified secrets to the Soviet Union. Under the alias of 'The Falcon', reflecting his expertise in the sport of falconry, Chris employs Daulton, an experienced cocaine trafficker nicknamed 'The Snowman', to smuggle intel to their KGB handler (David Suchet) in Mexico. Eventually Daulton's recklessness and ambition to create a major espionage business conflict with Chris' desire to settle down with his girlfriend (Lori Singer) and take a toll on their friendship as things spiral out of control.
Based on the true story behind one of the most infamous acts of espionage in America as detailed in Robert Lindsay's 1979 book of the same name, The Falcon and the Snowman reflects British director John Schlesinger's interest in misfit duos (Midnight Cowboy (1969)) and subjecting method actors to prolonged torture scenes (Marathon Man (1976)). The film was also an early work for screenwriter Steve Zaillian, future Oscar winner for Schindler's List (1993) and co-writer of an altogether more fantastical tale of espionage with Mission: Impossible (1996). Zaillian's pacy, literate writing yields compelling drama though the film is ultimately less interested in the broader themes raised by both Boyce's actions and those events that inspired them than the strain placed on their disintegrating friendship. As a consequence, despite the weighty subject matter and grueling running time, The Falcon and the Snowman ultimately proves more lightweight than one would imagine.
Zaillian's screenplay runs with the theory established in Lindsay's book which posits the act of treason by two privileged, well-educated All-American boys as symptomatic of a wider betrayal of the American dream perpetrated by the government through the Vietnam war, Watergate and numerous foreign policy blunders. The film paints Boyce in particular as very much a fallen idealist appalled at the manipulation of foreign governments, press and economies by the CIA and NSA for reasons that have nothing to do with national security. Yet in their drive to draw Boyce as some kind of political martyr the filmmakers gloss over certain events that sit uneasily with this thesis. Spoiler warning: there is no mention of his escape from prison in 1980 and involvement in a string of bank robberies prior to his recapture. These later incidents were detailed in Lindsay's follow-up book The Flight of the Falcon while Boyce himself went on to pen his own account of (American Sons: The Untold Story of the Falcon and the Snowman) after his eventual release.
After an Oscar win for Ordinary People (1980) Timothy Hutton was very much the poster boy for disillusioned youth. His boyish charm proves a perfect fit for the role, as conceived by Zaillian and Schlesinger, though at the time he was widely perceived to have been overshadowed by Sean Penn's far showier performance. Although Penn's method mannerisms prove grating at times there is no denying he paints a vivid portrait of a complex and flawed character whose desperation for love and approval drives him to increasingly heinous self-serving acts. It is interesting to note that upon Lee's eventual release from prison following a lengthy sentence he went on to become Sean Penn's personal assistant. The Falcon and the Snowman shows both men were in way over their head albeit in different ways. Lee foolishly reckons dealing intel is no different from his drug misadventures while Boyce is nowhere as smart as he believes himself to be, acting mostly on impulse with little regard for the consequences either for himself or his family. Unwieldy and overlong the film slogs through a wealth of detail but yokes comedy from often absurd situations, thus laying bare the mundane reality underlining the fantasy of espionage. Though slightly dated by a synth-laden score composed by Pat Methany and Lyle Mays the theme song co-written and performed with the late, great David Bowie remains potent.