From Novel to Film pt. 27: The Falcon and the Snowman

"His son eventually would judge America 
by a different kind of standard."


First published 1979.

Today's selection: The Falcon and the Snowman, Robert Lindsey's superb account of Christopher Boyce's and Andrew Daulton Lee's misadventures with the KGB in the mid-1970s. Lindsey was a reporter for the San Jose Mercury-News and covered the trial for the paper. He arranged his courtroom notes and dispatches, interviews with the principals, and field research into a digestible chronology - the story itself needed no more drama or intrigue - and Simon and Schuster published it. 

Boyce (above) and Daulton (below).

I only came across the story via the film and hadn't read the source material until a couple of weeks ago. I was surprised by how differently Boyce and Daulton come across in the reading. Very compelling story.

For those who aren't familiar with it, Boyce and Daulton were childhood friends from a wealthy community in Southern California. They conspired to sell satellite and other surveillance secrets from TRW, the multi-purpose corporation where Boyce worked, to the KGB in Mexico City, using Daulton as a courier. Daulton couldn't easily live in California due to multiple drug busts and probation violations. The Soviets, somewhat exasperatedly, tutor both of them on how to be better - or at least less bumbling - spies, to little ultimate effect.

Boyce's job at TRW was in "the Black Vault," the holy of holies inside the company, off-limits to all but a vaunted few. To get the job Boyce had to sign a conspicuous security and secrecy agreement and pass a comprehensive background check, which he passed with flying colors. No one uncovered his wilderness expeditions to pick peyote, nor any reason to believe he might one day sell secrets to the Russians. 

The Black Vault was the CIA's code room for its satellite robot-spy Argus program. It was the all-important relay between HQ and the major Argus stations at Pine Gap near Alice Springs, Australia. The real-world TRW office park was used for the surface of the planet Denobula in the TOS ep "Operation - Annihilate!" Only a few years after these pictures were taken below, Boyce was walking across the same grounds with KW-7 cipher cards in his bag (sometimes in potted plants) on booze and cigarette runs for the Black Vault crew. 

TRW was acquired by Northrop Grumman in 2002.
Gene Norman, one of Boyce's workmates mixing margaritas in the shredder. (Played by Dorian Harewood in the film.)
Security left something to be desired, sure - but seemed like a fun place to work.

The scheme worked for awhile. Boyce saw it as a protest against the evil empire masquerading as the America he loved, while Daulton (keeping the lion's share of what the Soviets paid them for himself) used it to fund his growing drug business, as well as his own habit. When Daulton is arrested on suspicion (ungrounded) of assassinating a police officer by the Mexican police and turned over to the FBI, the jig is up. After conviction, Daulton was sentenced to life; Boyce got forty years.

Outside of the primary sources mentioned above, the story and everyone described in it is all from Boyce's and Daulton's povs. As it should be and all - I'm just saying, none of Boyce's co-workers at TRW and of course none of the Russians get to speak to any allegations. Boyce cites Gene's bragging to him at TRW about his many rapes he committed in Vietnam as another factor in pushing him to compromise the CIA; Daulton cites the greed and subterfuge of the Russians, etc. Sometimes it rings a little hollow, and their stories change. Lindsey wisely lets it all play out with no intrusion, though he does offer some tantalizing thoughts at the end.

More on that in a minute. Other factors that Boyce claims to have motivated him to start selling items from The Black Vault to the KGB:

- a family trip to Mexico as a youngster. "I had been taught that Mexico was a democratic nation, but what spirit of liberty existed in these cardboard hovels? They lacked even the bruised nobility of peasants. Will no authority take responsibility for all of mankind; will the Third World always just be an abscess? Most frightening, I wondered, wasn't it in America's best self-interest to perpetuate its disproportionate consumption? Had we based our system on permanent inequity?"

- a friend whose legs were blown off in Vietnam. He makes a long list of Anglo-American myths (the Charge of the Light Brigade, Valley Forge, etc.) that aren't worth one of his kneecaps.

- the general climate of Rancho Palos Verdes. An affluent community in Los Angeles County, the 60s hit RPV rather hard, and Boyce came of age in a climate of drug-runners (and takers) who were into weird shit, like Oriental rugs and falconry. Boyce credits one of these older friends, Robin, with getting him into falconry specifically. Robin showed up at the Boyce home one day to show Boyce his falcon, Mohammed. Robin died a few days later after being fatally burned by blazing hashish oil he was preparing for sale.

- and, of course, Watergate, Vietnam, the corruption and the killings and all of these things.  

"Humanity is the most self-predatory species in existence. I am ashamed of the history of the nations and of my own origins and someday so will all of united humanity. The past shall be judged as ignorant and grisly barbarity. Like Camus, my subconscious is plagued with life's purposelessness (...) I am neither conservative nor socialistic. I have viewed myself a spectator of the great human void racing towards what it knows not. I long ago excused myself from the mad dash."

That struck me as a cop-out. Just as a character, I mean, not a personal judgment. Boyce is lacking the "bruised nobility," to borrow his own term, of the character from the movie.  

As the judge presiding over his trial says, plenty of Americans of Boyce's age had the same crises of faith, yet few of them crossed the rubicon to selling top-secret intel to the commies. Regardless of what he thought he was doing or why he thought he was doing it, it's unsettling to think someone could go from weed-induced questioning of society or philosophical objections to the misuse of Yankee Power to knowingly committing treason. Unsurprisingly, Boyce's spiritual malaise is deepened rather than salved by his dealings with the KGB. What pushed Boyce over the edge was a telex he received mistakenly concerning the CIA's role in labor unions and the removal of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.

He doesn't know what to make of it at the time but later learns Whitlam was fired and his public inquiries into the CIA stations in Alice Springs smothered.

He would reflect on this many years later: while his actions were the result of disillusionment with the U.S. government: "I used it as an excuse to launch a one-man war on central intelligence. Of course, that was insane."

The Pyramider, shown above, was a dead project, one neither TRW nor the CIA ever seriously developed. Boyce would at one time claim he only ever sold the Soviets useless info, but he later admits this was a self-deception and that he did "probably hundreds of millions of dollars" worth of damage to the burgeoning satellite surveillance industry. 

Lindsey points out that the name of the satellite, Argus is a reference to the ever-vigilant hundred-eyed giant of Greek mythology, "slain by Hermes, god of commerce, cunning and theft... the patron of thieves and rogues." 

Which brings us to the snowman:

"Only someone with a deep and mystical love for country could serve the way I have (...) (Boyce's) complacency could be attributed to knowing he's backed by 'the company' (CIA) or someone in his own company (TRW). Or he could have the mind of a schizophrenic, possibly a psychopathic mind. Or fearing the worst, I could see him believing that he could buy his way into a Russian-US takeover. He'd want to be on top when they bury us." 

I haven't given much space to Daulton's side of things. His arc is familiar from dozens of films and books - the son of California privilege who throws it aside for an outlaw life before being waylaid by hubris and such, but not before accumulating a trail of colorful adventures in a wealth of locales. His arrest forces him to quit drugs cold turkey in prison, which has to be among the most miserable things to imagine.  

The book ends with Daulton's suggestion to the author that the CIA was using them to deliver disinformation to the Russians. ("Does it make sense that an alcoholic and a Polack pot head could do this on their own?") Some of the things he brings up are worth thinking about. 

Too much to get into here, but I'll come back to real-world-Daulton in the Aftermath.


"I belong to no political organizations other than the Democratic Party."  

The film (directed by John Schlesinger, screenplay by Steven Zaillian) does a bang-up job compartmentalizing the real-world events as well as putting an acceptable (and very watchable) dramatic frame around them. Roger Ebert said it pretty well in his review of the film: "(it shows) in an admirably matter-of-fact way, exactly how these two young men got in way over their heads. This is a movie about spies, but it is not a thriller in any routine sense of the word. It's just the meticulously observant record of how naiveté, inexperience, misplaced idealism and greed led to one of the most peculiar cases of treason in American history."

I only came to this film in the late 90s, probably at the height of a phase where I was convinced of the unassailable logic of Marxist critiques of US foreign policy. Added to which, I may have over-identified with Timothy Hutton's character.

Like Boyce, I was (still am) a history buff who'd once considered a career in the church and someone who felt personally betrayed by government malfeasance.
Also like Boyce, my Dad worked for the feds and might just have easily gotten me a summer job at some place like this back in the day. (He didn't. Actually, he almost got me a job at one of the Army Corps of Engineers dams; I could've sold the Soviets a bunch of discarded cigarette butts and beer cans. Or maybe dam blueprints. Of course, the Soviet Union was gone by then.)
I also had friends whose less-than-security-minded approach to their government-sensitive jobs influenced my thinking.
As well as friends with burgeoning drug habits and business whom I nonetheless felt loyal to.

Unlike Boyce, I am afraid of falcons and all birds of prey. But I think it's a very cool hobby.

I had a lot of "wow, this could have been me" moments when I first saw it. Pure projection on my part, just saying. None of these things have to be personally relevant to you or me in order to appreciate the film.

To smooth its transition to the screen, it beefs up certain aspects of the father/son conflict and relationship drama (not always 100% successfully in either case).

Pat Hingle plays Boyce's Dad. Not badly but I could've done without the "Charge of the Light Brigade" recitation, even if I understand why it was done.
Lori Singer plays Boyce's girlfriend, Lana.

It emphasizes the friendship and former-altar-boy aspect of Boyce's and Daulton's relationship. Mainly, though, it's all sold on the solid performances from Timothy Hutton and Sean Penn, both of them at the top of their game.

Sean Penn might have benefited the most from being cast as Daulton. At the time, he was known primarily for Taps (also starring Hutton) and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. After Falcon, though, he was offered more and more diverse roles.

In the book, Boyce mentions how on the morning of his arrest, he turned to look at his falcon and received such a withering glare from the bird that he thought it was actually communicating intense disapproval and anger at him. This stunned him even more than the disapproval of his government or his parents. 

In the film, I thought Schlessinger had hit on a nice way to transition that to the film without trying to get a falcon to stare at Timothy Hutton disapprovingly:

Gene gives him a stuffed owl as a apartment-warming gift.
But then, nope, at the end during the arrest scene, there are these two fantastic close-ups of the falcon staring disapprovingly. Sure, maybe that's just the way falcons stare, but still.
At the height of Boyce's paranoia, he removes the eyes of the gifted stuffed owl. I can't recall if this was in the book or not, but I liked it on a few different levels.
Incidentally, here's an early appearance of Michael Ironside as one of the arresting FBI men.

All of the Soviet embassy/ KGB guys are compartmentalized into Pedro, masterfully played by David Suchet. "Pedro" has aspects of each of the Soviet characters with whom Daulton interacts from the book, but it's his mix of suave unflappability with periodic eruptions of exasperation and anger that translate the best.

Brilliant movie. One last thing - near the beginning, Boyce visits Daulton at his parents' home and accidentally knocks over a goldfish bowl. As a very disoriented Daulton processes what's happened, he reaches down to toss the goldfish into a different aquarium. "Little does he know..." says Daulton, before one of the two fish in the new tank swallows him whole. Not to my knowledge from the book, but a nice touch.


Daulton was paroled in the late 90s, thanks in large part to the efforts of paralegal Caitlyn Mills. She later became Caitlyn Boyce after working to free Christopher, and the two live in Oregon now. More on Boyce in a second, but Caitlyn penned this blog entry a few years back: sounds like the falling out between Boyce and Daulton widened instead of narrowed over the years.

At some point after his release, Daulton became Sean Penn's Personal Assistant. Not sure if that's still the case - he seems to keep a pretty low profile. So I'm uncertain if he maintains the theory he floats at the end of the book, that he was an unknowing agent of some kind of disinformation campaign the CIA was conducting at a time when congressional scrutiny of the organization was at its peak. Events of recent years (Snowden/NSA) seem to suggest any time there is public awareness over dubious government surveillance, a mole/ turncoat appears, somewhat conveniently, that deflects the conversation from one of robot-spies-out-of-control to one of compromised-security.

Is it odd that Daulton, a convicted drug smuggler was allowed to enter and exit the country so often and unobstructed? What of the charge that he killed a policeman and the Mexican government's subsequent failure to cooperate with the Carter administration? Is it odd that so many "dead projects" were left lying around the Black Vault to be photographed or spirited away, vs. so many of the other active programs Boyce might have delivered to the Soviets? Is it odd that other TRW employees seemed to think Boyce was either being watched or being protected by unidentified persons? Was the CIA correct in controlling what evidence the defense and prosecution could use at the trial? And is it odd that Boyce - convicted of treason and who escaped from prison in 1980 and then committed a string of bank robberies before being recaptured - was even considered for parole?  

As with all questions of intelligence, who can really say; too many unknowns exist. And there are plausible enough answers for many of these questions. The oddness is worth noting, though. I wish the real "Pedro" wrote a book about his side of things. Maybe he did - if so, I wish it would be translated into English and made available to me.

Final Verdict: Fantastic read, brilliant film, superlative adaptation. Also, this fine song from David Bowie plays over the end credits; enjoy.


  1. Man, that Bowie song is great. I need to listen to more of his stuff. Too bad he's gone, but dang, what he left behind...

    "The Falcon and the Snowman" is one of those titles that I've been hearing for decades now without ever having any clear idea of what it actually was. I knew who was in it, and I knew it was well-thought-of, but beyond that I couldn't have told you squat until today.

    Sounds like something I'd enjoy; certainly the film, and probably the book too.

    If I worked at TRW, all I'd be able to do is ask people to put a pancake on a fishing pole and chase me around me it. I wonder if it still looks the same as it did in "Operation -- Annihilate!" (And, as always, that exclamation point cracks me up.)

    That list of Boyce's rationale for getting into business with the KGB also cracks me up. I mean, seriously, guy: did you think that the Soviet Union and its associated nations didn't have equally crappy stuff going on? Did it actually seem likely to you that you could end Mexican poverty by enabling Russia? That's just silly. That's grass-is-greener thinking. And hey, for all I know the grass WAS greener over there, but I kind of doubt it. The grass everywhere is probably a bit brown, I bet.

    That Falcon DOES appear to be disapproving. Not quite a full-on Sam the Eagle glare, but close.

    "At some point after his release, Daulton became Sean Penn's Personal Assistant." -- Boy, if that's not just cause to issue a WTF, I don't know what is. Why do I get the feeling that Penn's life is five times as crazy as anything in this story?

    Great writeup! I enjoyed this peek into something I was unfamiliar with.

    1. The grass these guys were smoking was both brown and green - and red, too! But yeah, Boyce is kind of all over the place (in the book) as to why he did what he did. The movie Boyce is a great character and is better structured. The benefits of having a screenwriter like Zaillian organize your life-beats, I guess! And to be played by Timothy Hutton.

      I'd love to know more about Daulton's years working for Sean Penn, definitely. Watching this again over the weekend, I thought I wish he'd get back to acting.

      Definitely check the movie out sometime - one of my favorites of whatever genre it is: 70s drug culture Cold War crossover post-New-Wave something-something.

    2. Yeah, we should all have an Oscar-nominated screenwriter do a revision on our lives. Clear up some of those plot holes and faulty motivations.

  2. Sounds like you could write book of your own worth reading!

    I've always tended to a nebulous middle ground on these kinds of things, neither left or right (I think?). I tend to think there's a difference between "politics" and Democracy. The former is just the concerns of ordinary people, while politics is more the main driving force of (if not all history) then definitely myriad needless conflicts.

    As for Snowden, all I know is the last time I watched a clip of him was in an episode of "Last Week Tonight" with former Daily Show correspondent John Oliver. He'd gone to Russia to get an interview with Snowden. He spent gosh only knows how many hours at the agreed meeting point learning to kill time. At one point he was informed the Russia police had the hotel room he was in under surveillance. Just as Oliver was calling it that Snowden wouldn't show up, he did.

    He seemed conflicted as ever about the costs of his actions, yet he still maintained it was all a matter of principle as far as he was concerned.

    I'm definitely going to have to get a copy of the movie, as this does sound like a good story. I think they're being a bit unfair to the fictional character of Hermes, though....What the hell did I just even say?!


    1. Who knows what's up with Snowden. Not me, that's for sure. On one hand, it makes sense that the only place he could go after whistleblowing the NSA stuff was Moscow. On the other, it's incredibly suspicious/ convenient he ended up in Moscow. I wonder if he got Kim Philby's old apartment! But like I say, who knows. None of these comments are from a personal judgment standpoint; I lack all the relevant data to even approach making a conclusion, there.

      As for Hermes, I chuckled at the author's being a reporter for the san jose MERCURY news. That's the sort of verbal coincidence that amuses me. Hermes - the trickster god - is all over this story in so many ways. I loved the Argus angle, too.

      It's a fantastic movie - highly recommended, and great performances.