The Falcon and the Snowman (1985, John Schlesinger)

The best scene in The Falcon and the Snowman is when Sean Penn tries to sell his Russian handlers—a wonderfully bemused David Suchet and Boris Lyoskin—on a coke enterprise. They’ve got embassies all over, Penn figures, so why not make some money moving blow through them up from Peru or whatever. It’s maybe halfway through the movie and before any of the high dramatics start, but it’s this perfect moment in Penn’s performance. One where he, the script, and director Schlesinger sync. They rarely sync. It’s a problem. But this one scene is just magic.

Penn’s the only reason to watch Falcon and the Snowman, unless you want to study middling mainstream eighties writing and direction. Or if you want to see how having an exceptionally bland leading man—Timothy Hutton—hurts when he’s supposed to be the sympathetic one but Penn’s the one you’re always hoping is going to get out of this jam or that jam. It might help if Hutton had any conflict in his subplot. He screws over work partner Dorian Harewood—performatively tattles on him—and nothing comes of it. His father and son subplot with Pat Hingle goes nowhere, which is too bad because Hingle yelling at Hutton at least energizes the scenes. And Hutton romance with Lori Singer is the most miserable, thanks to them both being charmless and terrible.

But then there’s Penn and everything Penn touches is golden. Even a strange almost vignette sequence with Chris Makepeace briefly showing up as Penn’s brother—like a visit—and they go on a car ride together and Penn’s got this fantastic monologue. While Makepeace isn’t a particularly dynamic screen partner for Penn… he doesn’t come with all the Hutton baggage. Makepeace is a little bland, but it’s appropriate for him; he’s barely in it. Hutton’s bland and he’s in the movie a bunch and he’s always bland. He’s always dragging the scenes down, not just the ones with Penn.

Oh, right; the story. It’s the mid-seventies, Nixon’s just been impeached, Hutton is disillusioned but when his temporary post-seminary, pre-college job turns into a top secret government gig, he starts discovering how the CIA is messing with Australia’s elections and politics. Someone has to do something. Who better than Hutton, because he can get lowlife drug dealer best friend Penn to do all the legwork getting the information to the Russians. What kind of information? Details, schme-tails, look how funny it is when CIA satellite ground clerk contractors Hutton and Harewood make margaritas in their paper shredder.

Steven Zaillian’s script treats every anecdote and peculiar detail as one-offs, not indicators of anyone’s personality. Why does Hutton such an interest in falconry, outside possibly a pathological hatred of pigeons? Doesn’t matter. We get these really cool shots done from the falcon’s point-of-view, which are technically well-executed by cinematographer Allen Daviau but not actually very good shots. Schlesinger doesn’t have any very good shots in Falcon. If he were concentrating on the performances, it might be okay, but it’s a very boring looking film and Schlesinger can’t be bothered with the actors.

In some ways, it makes sense. On one hand, you have Penn doing this great thing and on the other, you have Hutton making drying paint look compelling. They even have Hutton driving this weird old pickup to try to give him personality but never establish him getting the pickup so it’s just this pointless quirk. Like when it turns out Singer is a movie theater ticket seller in her last scene. Falcon is so concerned with getting in “real” details everything seems forced.

Or, even worse, those are the fake details.

There’s no misfire so great I wouldn’t believe it to be intentional on Falcon and the Snowman. It’s a competent mess, a waste of Penn’s performance and the potential of the story—presumably the real guys were actually friends. There’s no sign of any history or friendship between Penn and Hutton, which also could just be Schlesinger’s atrocious direction of them together. Hutton’s never worse than in his scenes with Penn… okay, wait, no.

Hutton’s never worse than his scenes with Singer. Those scenes are his worst.

Then his scenes with Penn. But still the ones with Penn need to be the best scenes in the movie and instead they’re always disappointing.

The score, from Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays, has a lot of personality. If you use personality as a pejorative.

Good support from Richard Dysart and Priscilla Pointer as Penn’s parents. Joyce Van Patten has nothing to do as Hutton’s mom but she’s not bad. Harewood’s not great. Suchet’s good. Lyoskin’s fine.

Basically everything in the movie needs an overhaul except Penn.

Penn, the locations, and Jim Bissell’s production design (although it does feel like a very anti-seventies-style seventies period piece).

Everything else is middling or worse.

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