Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Sean Penn and Timothy Hutton turn traitor in this tangled spy thriller

Illustration for article titled Sean Penn and Timothy Hutton turn traitor in this tangled spy thriller

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With Steven Spielberg’s Bridge Of Spies coming to theaters soon, we recommend a few more Cold War spy movies.


The Falcon And The Snowman (1985)

Christopher Boyce (Timothy Hutton) decides to protest the government’s spy-agency meddling by selling secrets to America’s enemies in The Falcon And The Snowman, John Schlesinger’s taut tale of two men plummeting into an abyss of espionage double-dealing. Based on real events that predate the Edward Snowden saga by decades, the film opens with Christopher abandoning his seminary studies to take a job—courtesy of his retired FBI agent dad (Pat Hingle)—as a civilian defense contractor, where he’s put in charge of managing the CIA’s data flow. In a basement office where his colleague (Dorian Harewood) spends most of his time making margaritas in the paper shredder, Christopher reads misrouted communications that reveal the U.S.’s hand in shady overseas operations (including the Australian prime minster’s ousting). Consequently, he fights back against this supposed tyranny by handing over classified information to the Soviets in exchange for cash, using his coke-dealing childhood friend Andrew Daulton Lee (Sean Penn)—who’s skipped bail, and is in this scheme for the money—as his go-between.

The Falcon And The Snowman’s central metaphor involving a predatory eagle owned and trained by Christopher is a bit clunky, and a romantic subplot between Christopher and his girlfriend (Footloose’s Lori Singer) seems to have been a casualty of cutting-room downsizing. Nonetheless, Schlesinger’s portrait of his two characters’ scheme, which comes to involve transactions with KGB handler Alex (David Suchet) and unravels courtesy of Andrew’s burgeoning heroin habit, is consistently suspenseful, thanks to swift pacing and a script that mires itself in its protagonists’ confusion and paranoia. Increasingly incapable of deciphering whether they’re being used as pawns or being hunted by the feds, Christopher and Andrew become mired in a mess of their own making, with Hutton’s smarmy-preppie arrogance meshing well with Penn’s frazzled-punk cockiness and greed. Eventually, their only options are torture, death, or imprisonment (and ever-lasting disgrace), with Schlesinger’s tense film revealing itself to be the story of not only two men falling from grace, but of a Cold War espionage battle defined by both its violent ruthlessness and haphazard incompetence.

Availability: The Falcon And The Snowman is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Netflix, Amazon, or possibly your local video store/library.