With self-appointed Government-Secret whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden & WikiLeaks upon us, this fact-inspired/ stranger-than-fiction ‘70s precursor shouldn’t feel as dated or out-of-touch as it does. But something’s off right from the start when director John Schlesinger uses POV shots from the perspective of Timothy Hutton’s trained falcon, peering thru his little leather head gear. As things turn out, a host oddly forced character perspectives (thankfully not falcon-based) derail this promising espionage/buddy pic. You could assign the troubles to first-time scripter Steven Zaillian who lets the espionage game run on far too long before dashing thru an undernourished third act, but the generally lousy stylistics of mid-80s mainstream film production deserve just as much blame. As the seminary drop-out who takes an interim job with mid-level government security clearance, and then starts receiving high-security secrets thru some technical glitch via office teletype, Hutton gets a lot of his character across. Neatly cross-wiring high-minded (if specious) conscience-driven rationales about ‘sharing’ CIA information with Soviet agents to more personal Oedipal conflicts with an overbearing Dad. But his relationship with old childhood pal, and drug-addled fuck-up Sean Penn as his message courier never really adds up. Hard to see these two sharing a joke, let alone the remarkable low-maintenance espionage conspiracy they pull off . . . for a while. Or maybe it’s just Penn who can’t pull it off. Already into his Mini-Me Robert De Niro stage, his perf now looks all show/no tell. Fortunately, David Suchet is around as their wised-up, ironic Soviet handler to keep things tasty.
DOUBLE-BILL: Schlesinger’s tv film AN ENGLISHMAN ABROAD/’83, another tru-life spy yarn is both slyer & more satisfying. Script: Alan Bennett; Star: Alan Bates; Subject: the Soviet-exile quietus of famed spy Guy Burgess.