Director: John Schlesinger
Writer: Steven Zaillian, based on the book by Robert Lindsey
Stars: Timothy Hutton, Sean Penn, David Suchet, Lori Singer
The Story: The true story of an ex-seminary student who gets a job as a data analyst working for a CIA contractor. When he realizes that the CIA is routinely undermining democracy abroad, even in U.S.-allied countries like Australia, he decides to start selling info to the Soviet Union in a misguided attempt to restore global balance. In order to ferry info to the Soviet embassy in Mexico, he recruits a drug dealing buddy, who quickly screws it all up.
How it Came to be Underrated: Hutton had already won a well-deserved Oscar for Ordinary People and this film showed that he could be great in adult roles as well, but he mysteriously disappeared off the list of serious actors after this. For that matter, Sean Penn didn’t get a lot of good work in the late ‘80s either. Penn eventually worked his way back into the A-list, but Hutton never did.
Why It’s Great:
- In many classic spy thrillers like Three Days of the Condor, the whole goal is to expose the conspiracy to the New York Times. But this movie is willing to admit that in real life, that does little good. As Hutton says, “It’s already public. You can’t get any more public than what happened in Chile. People still don’t believe we engineered that.” We’re never remotely sympathetic to Hutton’s solution, but we also see that he had no legitimate outlet for his anger.
- That said, this movie has a very different vibe than most “nefarious CIA” movies, exemplified by Hutton’s first day on the job monitoring satellites, when his jingoistic boss turns on the jumbo paper shredder and starts pouring tequila into it to mix margaritas. They then proceed to play Risk all day, oblivious to the parallels between what’s happening on the board and what info is passing through their machines. Perversely, the general air of frivolity makes the wickedness of it all that much more believable.
- Once Hutton’s decision is made, the second half of the movie gets stolen by the interaction between Penn’s drug dealer and Suchet’s Soviet attaché, whose scenes together are delightfully strange. Penn ties himself in ethical knots that expose the absurdity of the situation: At first he won’t betray his country, but when he gets caught with drugs, he decides that he has to commit espionage after all, for money, because he has too much moral turpitude to rat on his fellow dealers. Huh?
- Fair warning: panic will start to set in when you hear a painful new-age jazz score start to kick in over the opening credits, but don’t worry, Schlesinger barely uses it.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Other great early ‘80s films about Americans running afoul of the CIA in Latin America include Salvador and Missing.
How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD, but this is the sort of film that calls out for a Special Edition.
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