The Falcon and the Snowman isn’t a title that conjures up ideas of serious film making, or gritty storytelling. Maybe I’m just too much of a Burt Reynolds fan, but all my life, it’s always just made me think of Smokey and the Bandit. So, when I finally decided to watch it, without ever bothering to look into to what it was about, who was in it, or when it was made, I was surprised to discover and 80s made, 70s set, Cold Wear spy thriller starring Sean Penn. Now that is a description that would have made me watch The Falcon and the Snowman long ago.
Getting a cushie job for a private defense contractor, Christopher (Timothy Hutton) spends his days in an ultra secure office with two other people. Left to their own devices, that means a lot of day time drinking and not much else. One day though, Christopher notices a communique come through from the CIA, possibly by mistake. Highlighting the CIA’s intentions to have the Australian Prime Minister overthrown, Christopher begins to get a little disillusioned with his government. Being the 70s, the Cold War is still firing on all cylinders. So disillusionment with the government leads to selling secrets to the Russians.
Christopher does this via his childhood friend, Daulton (Sean Penn). From their comfortable, middle class upbringings, Christopher and Daulton’s lives couldn’t have gone in more different directions, but they have none the less stayed friends. A long time drug dealer, Daulton’s frequent trips to and contacts in Mexico become Christopher’s gateway to the commies. Eventually, they’re in over their heads and trying to figure out how to get out alive.
I knew nothing about The Falcon and the Snowman going in. So to me, the most amazing part was finding out that it’s based on a true story. And not just ‘based on’ in the way that Hollywood usually means, with massive liberties and artistic license being taken to make it more interesting. From everything I read online, The Falcon on the Snowman is an extremely faithful retelling of what these dudes did.
The biggest benefit of this seemingly faithful adaptation is that it avoids a lot of Hollywood clichés. And it keeps things ambiguous in a way that meant I never really knew what to expect next. It never tries to make Christopher and Daulton heroes. It never tries it make them bad guys. It just tells their story and lets the viewer form their own opinion. At first, that frustrated me, because I’m so used to movie spoon feeding this kind of thing to me, I didn’t realise it was purposely letting me make my own decision. But once I realised what was happening, and relaised that I was actually in for a few surprises, I really got into the flow and really enjoyed the unknown that this movie offered.
As far as I know, the only other movie I’ve seen with Timothy Hutton in a central role is Ordinary People. I really didn’t like that movie at all, and found it one of the worst examples of snooty schmatlz I’ve ever seen. Seeing Hutton again in The Flacon and the Snowman, I realised he’s a big part of what I didn’t like about Ordinary People.
He’s so bland, wooden and vanilla, I sometimes had to remind myself how interesting the story of The Falcon and the Snowman was, because he just sucked the air out of very scene he’s in. Luckily, Sean Penn is there most of the time to more than make up for it. So while a movie focusing in the Christopher character was really good, I just came away thinking how great a movie would have been focusing on Daulton instead.