There is no doubt that John Schlesinger can handle complex characters in heavy situations. Go no further than Midnight Cowboy or Marathon Man to see his expertise. So it's truly a mystery why Timothy Hutton and Sean Penn (as the true-life turncoats Christopher Boyce and Daulton Lee, respectively) come off as one-dimensional cutouts. It's a shame, too, because it would be interesting to know why these two childhood friends felt it was a good idea to throw themselves into a deadly game of cold-war espionage and sell out their country. To be fair, Hutton's performance doesn't help. He appears to be completely elsewhere, even when he's in situations where the likelihood of getting killed is very real. Penn, on the other hand, does everything he can with the thin script and comes up with a nasally character that will be more fully realized in his critically lauded performance as David Kleinfeld in Carlito's Way. But all is not lost. Waiting to see what Penn's misguided actions can do to screw up the mission more than he already has creates the kind of tension that audiences get when watching people investigate sounds in a dark room during a horror flick. The Falcon and the Snowman is almost an anti-spy film, showing what would happen if two average Joes had the chance to play James Bond. In the end, they find out it's not as easy and nowhere near as glamorous.
by Scott Engel review