Searching for Playtronics: A Quixotic Attempt To Recreate My Favorite Scene From Sneakers

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Sept. 10 2012 8:00 AM

Searching for Playtronics

A quixotic attempt to re-create my favorite scene from Sneakers.

120911_CB_Sneakers_bridge_2_EX
The Sneakers van crossing the San Mateo Bridge in search of a clue

Universal Pictures.

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?”

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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.

Aerial view of San Mateo-Hayward bridge.
The San Francisco Bay. Playtronics is out there, somewhere.

Calbookaddict/Wikipedia.

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.

Once on the other side of the bridge, I pulled over and played back my tape. The road noise was at a higher, more nasal pitch than it is in the movie. (I wasn’t even driving very fast.) More importantly, the sound of the wheels hitting the seams was hardly noticeable, the metal teeth fitted too neatly to make much noise passing over, at least on the bridge’s front half. On the long sea-level stretch of the bridge, however, the seams changed, becoming more like metal rails, and these were close together and unmistakable:

Surely Bishop would have noted these; they would have jostled his cranium for several miles. (He was, after all, lying on his back the duration of the ride.) But for some reason they’re not what Bishop hears in the movie. When Whistler is trying to recreate the sound of the bumps, Bishop instructs him to make them “Further apart.” He should have said, “Closer together.”

OK, so my homebrew recording didn’t line up to the movie’s, but driving over the bridge, something I hadn’t done in years, had been fun, and I now knew its true sound—a lesson I will be thankful for if I am ever stuffed in a trunk and driven across the San Mateo.

But my journey wasn’t over. The Sneakers team, having reached the other side, asks Bishop what he heard next while captive.

BISHOP: Bumps. Rough ones.
CREASE: Railroad tracks.
CARL: Yeah, a right on Antrim and a left on 84.

I’d never heard of, nor could find a trace of, a road called “Antrim” or “Antrem” or “Anthram,” but I knew what 84 was. In these parts it’s a local road that cuts eastward through the city of Fremont, eventually threading a mountain canyon and pointing toward Sacramento. I followed it for a bit through the sleepy, residential center of town, crossing over a set of not-so-rough railroad tracks, until I had left behind the last stretch of single-family bungalows and was nearly among the moss-colored foothills.

I sensed I was close. I almost expected the Playtronics corporate park to show over the next hill. But there was still one more major step.

WHISTLER: And then what did you hear?
BISHOP: A cocktail party.
CARL: What?

WHISTLER: Stay on Crescent, get off at the reservoir.
CREASE: There’s a cocktail party at the reservoir?
WHISTLER: [Shit-eating grin creeps across his face.] Uh, yeah. Yeah.

It’s one of the movie’s little coups, the discovery that hundreds of squawking geese can sound—with your eyes closed—not unlike a cocktail party. But according to my map, the nearest reservoir was half an hour away, meaning either this sizable chunk of time had been elided in the movie or, more likely, the reservoir had been relocated in the film’s fictional geography. Deciding now to drive to the real reservoir would have made me late for an appointment, and there was no assurance that a gaggle of white geese would have greeted me upon the shores anyway, let alone the Playtronics headquarters, rising like the mirage of a caravansary in the desert.

I turned the car around and began to head back. But first, I stopped to rest for a minute in the parking lot of one of Fremont’s public parks, one with a pond in the middle. A few dirty gray geese strolled near to the car, a measure of defiance in their posture as they waddled past. They would do.

Also in Slate's celebration of the 20th anniversary of the movie Sneakers: John Swansburg and Julia Turner discuss the film's enduring appeal; actor Stephen Tobolowsky fondly recalls his role as Werner Brandes; and Lowen Liu investigates how the movie's "Setec Astronomy" ended up on a black-ops uniform patch.

Lowen Liu is Slate's managing editor.

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