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A true spy story with an eye for the absurd

``The Falcon and the Snowman'' are code names for two odd characters. One is an idealist who loses his rosy view of the American way and decides that his pet bird, a predator, has the right idea of how to grapple with the real world.

The other is a drug dealer whose transactions in snowy powder become a squalid metaphor for capitalistic excess.

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Put them together and you have the most dubious main characters of any ``buddy movie'' in years: a cynic and an opportunist who blunder their way into an espionage caper.

Their personalities provide the setup for John Schlesinger's new thriller, which is based on a true story. And the director doesn't let it settle into a familiar round of spy-vs.-spy skulduggery. A wry observer of the American scene -- and veteran of the all-time dubious buddy film, ``Midnight Cowboy'' -- he goes for irony and absurdism every chance he gets.

The result is an offbeat suspense yarn with an underpinning of impolite wit. It loses its way only when Schlesinger lets the symbols get out of control: The movie contains a real falcon as well as a metaphorical one, and it's used as a thudding stand-in for ideas like freedom and rapacity, varying from one scene to another.

The plot gets under way when young, middle-class Chris takes a job with a high-tech firm. He makes a good impression and the boss transfers him to a division that does CIA communications work. Although just a technician, he gets to read classified memos all day long. Putting these together with the daily headlines, he concludes gloomily that his government is manipulating world affairs in ways his teachers never told him about.

Instead of shedding his idealism, he just channels it in another direction, deciding to toss a monkey wrench into the CIA's schemes. Since his best friend, Daulton, is on the lam from a drug charge at the moment, and has become pretty good at skulking around, Chris recruits him as a courier to the nearest Soviet embassy, which is happy to strike a bargain for a flow of American secrets.

What makes this more than a cloak-and-dagger melodrama is the abandon of director Schlesinger and his screenwriter, Steve Zaillian, in taking sharply critical views -- often barbed with satiric humor -- of every faction, camp, and country in the film. If drug dealing is mean and dangerous, middle-class respectability is shallow and suffocating. If the CIA is sneaky and hypocritical, Soviet agents are sneaky and thuggish. If conventional schooling left Chris and Daulton ill-equipped to face reality, their own solutions are stupid and self-destructive.

``The Falcon and the Snowman'' would work better if the filmmakers didn't have to cram all these perspectives into a little over two hours. The pace is too breathless for comfort; the leaps in time and space leave gaps in the story; the actors have trouble balancing the historic, dramatic, comic, and tragic dimensions of the overcrowded tale. If you don't fall in step with the movie's ironic tone at the very beginning, you may feel its absurdism is more accidental than deliberate. (I suspect many viewers reacted this way to ``Who'll Stop the Rain,'' which flopped a few years ago despite many fine qualities.)

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Still, these problems and the annoying bird scenes aside, ``The Falcon and the Snowman'' is the liveliest picture so far this year -- thanks to director Schlesinger, who needed a comeback after such duds as ``Honky Tonk Freeway'' and ``Yanks,'' and to the vigorous cast headed by Timothy Hutton as ``falcon'' Chris and Sean Penn as ``snowman'' Daulton.

The film's R rating reflects a good deal of vulgar language and some drug use.

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