In 1974, former Catholic seminary student Christopher Boyce (played by Timothy Hutton) takes a job at TRW, a Southern California aerospace firm, where he is read on to highly classified programs related to the then-new technology of satellites. Through a childhood friend, drug dealer, and minor smuggler, Andrew Daulton Lee (played by Sean Penn), Boyce begins selling secrets to Soviet intelligence based in the Embassy in Mexico.
Credit should be given for the graphics. While released in the mid-1980s, the clothing (and hair) is clearly of 1970s vintage. But the film’s narrative is direly flawed—both in what it does say and what it doesn’t.
Boyce is presented as anguished by the receipt of CIA documents—accidentally routed through his station—which show that America is (the horror!) working to promote U.S. interests, even in Allied States. Specifically, Boyce is outraged by the dismissal of Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in late 1975. Whitlam had been a very troublesome American ally—hardly surprising in itself, given the record of his Labour Party, penetrated with Soviet sympathizers and agents. Boyce was convinced that America engineered Whitlam’s removal.
Boyce, however, says that there is no point going to the media because there had been no outrage even when everyone already knew that the U.S. organized the overthrow of the elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile—a myth, to be sure, but one with serious endurance, second only to the one about Iran in 1953 … but that’s another story. Therefore Boyce has to sell secrets to the Kremlin.
No I don’t get the logic either. There is no attempt—at all—to explain how this apparent idealism morphs into mercenary treason.
The film permits Lee to be an avaricious and selfish man—and an increasingly unstable drug fiend (“snowman” refers to his cocaine habit; “falcon” refers to Boyce’s expertise in falconry.) But Boyce is somehow moral, yet needs the money, and keeps trying to get out of it but somehow always cannot.
This is nonsense on particularly elevated stilts of course. Both Boyce and Lee were money-hungry and liked the thrill, though Boyce threw together some sophomoric political rationalizations afterward.
The obvious analogy for Boyce is Edward Snowden. Boyce is a man who doesn’t actually understand much of the material he gives to Moscow and is in no sense a trained spy, but occupies a technical position that gives him access to information that means his treason can do an extraordinary amount of damage.
Indeed, Boyce begins to sound like Snowden, with hysterical, evidence-free charges that a legitimate U.S. intelligence-gathering agency is now being used to prey on weaker governments, that the U.S. military-intelligence system is beholden to weapons manufacturers, and that the U.S. government can’t be trusted with so much power—did they not bomb Hiroshima, after all? The only difference is that Boyce directs his fevered imagination and treacherous conduct at the CIA, not NSA.
At one point, after Boyce ostensibly tries to quit and is coerced into remaining as a Soviet spy because the KGB won’t let him stop, he expresses some confusion that he ever thought the East would be better than the West. The Soviets are “just as paranoid and dangerous as we are,” Boyce says. Boyce’s grand conclusion is that the Soviet Union is as bad as the Western democracies, maybe. Moral equivalence at its finest.
Perhaps most Snowdenesque is when Boyce, having been arrested in January 1977 after Lee was apprehended and confessed all, defends his megalomaniacal decision to assume the right to endanger the lives of every American citizen with the witless retort that they’re already in danger from their own government.
As Hollywood Cold War films go, it’s not bad, and the selection of Sean Penn was somehow perfect. But the film remains troubled narratively, never deciding whether or not it is an apologia for at least Boyce, and politically it has the terrible vices of continuing to soft-peddle Soviet wickedness, overstate American malice, and look for nobility in traitors.