Christopher Boyce (Hutton), the son of an FBI employee, gets a job with a defense contractor working with classified and sensitive information. Through that job, he reads a communiqué dealing with CIA plans to depose the Prime Minister of Australia. Disillusioned, he decides to provide the Soviets with U.S. government secrets as a form of punishment.
To further his plan, Boyce needs someone with experience in crossing borders and evading the authorities. He turns to childhood friend, small time drug dealer Andrew Daulton Lee (Penn). Lee, seeing the espionage as a business opportunity, gets greedy and creates problesm for Boyce. Both of them are in over their heads.
Lee is arrested in Mexico City with undeveloped film and a postcard of the drop zone in his pocket. The Mexican police plan to charge him with the murder of an officer. Under torture he confesses to being a spy. Back in the United States, Boyce releases his falcon and waits for his own arrest.
- Addled Addict: Lee, a minor coke dealer, hasn't gotten the memo about not getting high on your own supply.
- "Blackmail" Is Such an Ugly Word: Lee has plans to make the spying a regular business. Boyce balks because that's not why he got into this. Lee tells him that he's made copies but won't release them as long as Boyce plays along.
- I Have No Son!: Boyce's father disowns him at the end, unable to bear the shame of having a traitor for a son.
- Shameful Strip: Lee is made to sit in the police lieutenant's office wearing only briefs while the Foreign Service drops by to consult.
- Swirlie: One of the treatments Lee is subjected to in order to make him confess.
- Wide-Eyed Idealist: Boyce is initially proud to be working (indirectly) with American intelligence. When he learns of them doing things that contradict his ideals he agrees to provide info to the Soviet Union as a way of shaming them. Ultimately he winds up being disappointed by both sides.