When Sneakers first came out in theaters, I was a 14-year-old resident of the Bay Area who’d hardly been anywhere else. It was gratifying to watch a movie set so close to home, and one sequence would stoke pride and recognition than any other: the hunt for the enemy lair.
About halfway through the film, our battered hero Marty Bishop (Robert Redford) returns from a threatening tete-a-tete with Cosmo, the movie’s villain, at his base of operations. The only hope Marty and his team have of recapturing the black box at the center of this spy caper is to infiltrate those headquarters—if they can be found. Bishop has no idea where he was taken, having been stuffed in the trunk of a car during the trip. The ensuing despair over how to proceed is interrupted by the voice of Whistler (David Strathairn, Bay Area native), the team’s blind technician. “What did the road sound like?” he asks. “Did you go over any speed bumps? Gravel? How about a bridge?”
I nearly stood up in the theater from excitement. I’d never seen anything like it: the geography of San Francisco turned into a puzzle to be solved.
Few movies have really gotten the Bay Area: its microclimates, its variety. Drive a half-hour in any direction and you will end up somewhere that looks and feels completely different than where you started. Vertigo got it, of course. So did Bullit. In that movie's famous car chase, Steve McQueen starts off bouncing his fender on the San Francisco asphalt; five minutes later he’s weaving through the golden San Bruno hills.
Sneakers got it, too. Twenty years later, the sleuthing sequence still thrills: What did it sound like? Whistler presses Bishop. There was indeed a bridge, so the first order of business is determining which one. Was there a foghorn? No. Scratch the Golden Gate. A tunnel? No. Scratch the Bay Bridge. That leaves two, the San Mateo and the Dumbarton. And only one has “seams in the concrete,” as Whistler puts it, fingering his synthesizer to break up a steady drone of highway noise with jerking aural bumps.
On a recent weekend back in San Francisco, I did what any self-respecting fan of Sneakers would do given the opportunity: I drove across the San Mateo Bridge with a tape recorder in my trunk. (It seemed more reasonable than being in the trunk myself.) My destination: Playtronics, the bad guy’s heavily secured fortress dressed up like a toy company. Playtronics is where Bishop encounters for the first time in decades his old friend Cosmo, who is now, apparently, the CFO of the Mob. I’ve never understood why the Mafia would want to establish a financial hub in the expansion-town bowels of the southeast quadrant of the San Francisco Bay, but such a reality-based question was not germane to my mission.
I left the canals of Foster City behind and drove up the back of the bridge on its initial rise, eventually reaching the highest point. When the film cuts from the dim loft interior of the team’s headquarters to a bright aerial shot of the bridge, this is where we find their gray van, rolling and bumping over the bridge’s expanse.
Being little more than a roadway set on pylons (hence the segment seams), the San Mateo Bridge has no suspension or truss elements to block the noontime sun. Throw in the reflectiveness of the surrounding water, and it can feel like the brightest place in the Bay Area. It’s the longest bridge spanning the bay (and was the longest in the world at construction), and though it lacks the Golden Gate’s grandeur it’s always been my favorite—partially for its length and partially for its slender, unencumbered structure. But mostly because after its high-rise section it suddenly dips down to sea level and runs close to the water the rest of the way, unique among the Bay’s bridges. From this far out in the water, the East Bay wetlands appear in the distance at ankle height, while the Diablo Mountains loom behind like a sea wall.