If you can get past the cheesy soundtrack and ugly eighties feel, The Falcon and the Snowman (1985) is a worthy addition to the spy catalogue, thanks in particular to an immersive, scene-stealing performance by Sean Penn.
The film is set in the mid-seventies and based on true events. Christopher Boyce (Timothy Hutton), a bright young man with the unusual hobby of falconry, leaves the seminary after a crisis of faith. Thanks to connections from his former FBI father (Pat Hingle), he lands a job as a cipher clerk at a Southern California defense contractor. But it turns out he’s the wrong man for classified work: when he starts reading misrouted CIA transmissions, he’s so disgusted by what he learns that he recruits his old friend Daulton Lee (Penn) to help him sell the information to the Russians.
It’s an engaging story about two entitled rich kids who get in over their heads in the espionage world, for different reasons. Boyce’s motive is ideological: spying as protest, against his country’s foreign policy. But Daulton has a simple, entrepreneurial approach to his traitorous activities: top secret information is just another product to move, another business opportunity for him. Unfortunately he’s also a coke-snorting loose cannon whose shoddy tradecraft gets him into more and more trouble. The deeper they get, the more paranoid they become, so that what begins as an impulsive lark turns out to be much more serious.
Director John Schlesinger escalates the suspense nicely, particularly when he ratchets up the paranoia for his antiheroes as their lives get more and more out of control. Hutton is solid as the primary lead, and his character is clearly the film’s message-bearer: late in the film, when his dialogue reveals why he became a traitor, his lines feel just as relevant today as when the film was made, if not moreso. But Penn steals the show, selling Daulton as a fast-talking, weasely, rather tragic criminal with a hopelessly broken moral compass. It’s a superb and surprisingly sympathetic performance. Overall, an excellent spy film.