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September 11, 2013

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Before Bradley Manning, there was Christopher Boyce

March 26, 2013

 

I’ve been spotting the movie The Falcon and the Snowman on cable TV a lot these days. At first, I thought it was just a case of me noticing it more. It’s a natural thing to happen – you tune your brain to a particular wavelength and you’re bound to start picking up signals you didn’t know were there. The fact that for the last year I’ve been working on a sequel to the book The Falcon and the Snowman with Christopher Boyce and his wife, Cait, should certainly be enough cause for any mention of falcons or snowmen to send my radar into overdrive. But to be perfectly honest, I’m convinced it’s a lot more than that.

 

A conspiracy? No. Aliens? Go ask Giorgio Tsoukalos. For a while, I ascribed it to the 80s revival, or maybe a sign that the phenomenon was finally gasping its last breath. This would come as welcome news to many of us who actually experienced the 80s firsthand. Personally, I don’t remember them all that fondly. I don’t recall them as being all neon clothes and cool music. The 80s had plenty of both, yes, plus way too much hairspray and far too many skinny ties. But they also had a dark side. The 80s gave us AIDS and an out-of-control nuclear arms race, which – even when contemplated separately – was enough to scare the shit out of anyone.

 

Searching for another reason for the resurgence in interest in The Falcon and the Snowman, I next asked myself: Could it be that some smartass cable TV programming director decided to put into heavy rotation an 80s movie that takes place in the 70s as a way of offering up a refreshing counterbalance to those supremely annoying John Hughes flicks? Maybe. But I think it goes even deeper than that. It’s not nostalgia or passive-aggressive programming – it’s simply that The Falcon and the Snowman still resonates. It may even be more relevant today than it ever has been.

 

Case in point: Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army soldier who’s set to go on trial this summer for uploading a bunch of classified diplomatic and defense documents to WikiLeaks. You can draw a lot of parallels between Manning and Christopher Boyce, a couple of idealistic twentysomethings from different generations who took a peek into the proverbial abyss and were drastically changed by what they saw. For Manning, what he saw would come to be called “collateral murder.” For Boyce, it was the discovery that his government wasn’t as squeaky clean and noble as he’d always been led to believe.

 

Both young men also had accomplices in their crimes. Boyce was helped by his childhood friend, Andrew Daulton Lee. Manning found an unlikely partner in WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who’s currently hanging out at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London avoiding extradition to Sweden for sexual assault charges. For the record, Lee was never accused of sexually assaulting anyone. But the eerie parallels still exist, especially when you consider that one of Lee’s most frequented sanctuaries throughout his two-year spying escapade was the Soviet Embassy in Mexico.

 

All surface similarities aside, what really ties the stories of Christopher Boyce and Bradley Manning together are their similar acts: the betrayal of country for allegedly idealistic purposes. That, and the promise of some serious jail time. While Boyce received a 40-year prison sentence, Manning may end up behind bars for a lot longer. Already, he’s pleaded guilty to misusing classified material and is staring down the barrel of a 20-year sentence. But the additional charges that will probably be piled on at his trial this summer could send him to prison for the rest of his life.

 

Sometimes, I wonder how things might have worked out for Christopher Boyce if he’d been born 30 years later; if he’d had access to the things that Bradley Manning did, like the internet and WikiLeaks, or even the blogosphere. In a pivotal scene from the movie The Falcon and the Snowman, a pencil-mustachioed Daulton Lee (Sean Penn) tries to convince Christopher Boyce (Timothy Hutton) to “go public” by talking to the New York Times about the U.S. government’s rumored involvement in the ousting of Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. In real life, this conversation never took place – but Boyce did consider it, eventually determining that for all its influence the media didn’t have the power to affect any real change. Instead, he took a different path and wound up losing a quarter-century of his life to the gray and lifeless confines of federal prison for selling secrets to the Soviet Union.

 

There are lessons to be learned in the parallel stories of Christopher Boyce and Bradley Manning. What are those lessons? I’m not the guy to ask. I can only guess. Maybe a warning for government agencies to exercise tighter controls on sensitive information, or to perform better background checks on the people given access to it. Maybe a cautionary tale for every person who’s ever felt betrayed by their government and who is seriously considering taking steps that could cost them their freedom.

 

In 1985, eight years after he was convicted for espionage, Christopher Boyce testified in front of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Investigations in an effort to help authorities understand why people become spies. In his impassioned statement, Boyce said: “I only wish that before more Americans take that irreversible step, they could know what I now know – that they are bringing down upon themselves heartache more heavy than a mountain.”

 

Apparently, even the most eloquently stated admonitions in the world aren't enough to prevent some people from making those same mistakes. Maybe if The Falcon and the Snowman had been in heavy cable TV rotation back in 2010, Bradley Manning might have seen it and heeded that warning, saving himself from what will likely be a lifetime of confined despair.

The book American Sons: The Untold Story of the Falcon and the Snowman was written by Christopher Boyce, Cait Boyce, and Vince Font. The 2017 expanded hardcover edition is available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, and other online bookstores.

 

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