Sneakers Is a Masterpiece

How the 1992 Cyber Caper Sneakers Predicted the Information Age
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Sept. 10 2012 3:45 AM

Sneakers Is a Masterpiece

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Celebrating the endlessly rewatchable and amazingly prescient caper film on its 20th birthday.

Dan Aykroyd, River Phoenix, Robert Redford and Sidney Poitier in Sneakers.
Dan Aykroyd, River Phoenix, Robert Redford, and Sidney Poitier in Sneakers.

Universal Pictures/IMDB.

Jail Nurture:

I’m using your anagrammatic codename, in case this communiqué is intercepted and decrypted. Then again, it’s no secret that we’re both huge fans of Sneakers, the 1992 cyber caper celebrating its 20th anniversary today. When I learned that Slate film critic Dana Stevens had never seen the movie, I pressed the DVD into her hand with the fervor of a missionary. (She said she liked it, but she may have been afraid to say otherwise.) Recently, in our daily headline meeting, you and I contrived to use “Too Many Secrets”—Sneakers reference!—as the cover line for a story about Republican opposition to the DISCLOSE Act. It sort of made sense.

Naturally, when we realized this anniversary was coming up, we planned a special issue devoted to Phil Alden Robinson’s crowning directorial achievement. OK, Robinson is probably better known for the movie he made before SneakersField of Dreams—and that sentimental ghost story certainly has its appeal. But for me, Sneakers occupies a special category: It’s a movie I can watch again and again and never get tired of; it’s the movie I happily settle on when every other DVD or download doesn’t quite suit my mood. I think I find it so trusty because it’s action-packed without being too violent, and smart without taking itself too seriously. And, perhaps most important, it’s perfectly paced: Even when you know every scene by heart, not one of them feels like it lasts a second longer than it needs to. I’ve seen Sneakers more than a dozen times; I’ve never hit fast forward.  

A quick refresher for those readers who remember the movie fondly but not vividly. The story centers on an unorthodox small business: A company of five men who specialize in testing security systems by circumventing them. (They break into banks to show them how susceptible they are.) Martin Bishop (Robert Redford) is the leader and face of the business; Donald Crease (Sidney Poitier) is head of security; Darren “Mother” Roskow (Dan Aykroyd) is a technology specialist; Carl Arbogast (River Phoenix) is a master of disguise (sort of); and Irwin “Whistler” Emery (David Strathairn) is a blind guy with an elevated sense of hearing—which proves, again and again, to be the most useful asset of all.

The guys are making a living, if “not a very good one,” as one of their clients points out, until an ominous pair of suits shows up at their San Francisco loft. The men, who claim to work for the National Security Agency, have a job for Martin & Co. Their mission is to steal a little black box that a mathematician has built; the NSA wants to have a look at it. The gig is not optional: The suits have figured out that Martin Bishop is actually Martin Brice, who has been on the lam for decades. (In the movie’s opening sequence, we see a young Marty participating in a little pre-Internet computer chicanery, moving money out of Richard Nixon’s checking account into the treasury of the National Organization to Legalize Marijuana.) If Martin doesn’t get his hands on that little black box, the suits will see to it that he spends his next decade in prison.     

We’re off and running from there, with Martin’s team securing, then losing, then attempting to resecure that little black box, which turns out to be the ultimate code-breaking device, a gadget every government on the planet would like to get its hands on. And some nongovernmental organizations, too: Though the NSA and the Russians are in the hunt, the outfit with the inside track turns out to be a shadowy private organization run by Marty’s old college buddy—and the guy who took the fall for their little Nixon prank. That would be a man known only as Cosmo, played with an eerie iciness—and a really weird accent—by Ben Kingsley.

In preparation for this dialogue, I decided to look up some old reviews, curious to see how critics at the time described the rip-roaring action that ensues. I was shocked, however, to learn that not everyone shares our high esteem for the movie. “Sneakers is jokey without being funny, breathless without creating suspense, in part because of the feeble plot,” wrote Vincent Canby in his New York Times review. But Vincent, what about the star-studded cast? “The performances are generally quite bad,” he wrote.

The late Mr. Canby couldn’t be more wrong, and not just about the name of Redford’s character, whom he strangely refers to throughout his review as “Dan.” The problem, I think, is that Canby interpreted Sneakers as an attempt to hearken back to “a kind of caper movie that was so beloved in the early 1970s.” If you go into Sneakers expecting 3 Days of the Condor, yes, you’ll be disappointed. But Canby was wrong to see Sneakers as a failed attempt to recreate that kind of taut thriller. Sneakers is a lighter-hearted movie—and one that playfully acknowledges, right out of the gate, that it’s not one of those spy stories from Redford’s heyday. In an early heist sequence, Redford attempts to leap over a desk and falls flat on his face. It’s a “jokey” moment, sure, but I find it funny every time, and it establishes that this movie is going to find a balance between suspense and the occasional bit of silliness.

In Canby’s defense, he was writing in 1992, and couldn’t have recognized one of the movie’s greatest accomplishments: its prescience. Though much of its technology looks hopelessly dated 20 years on—motion sensors! voice activation! pleated pants!—the movie was spot-on in its prediction of how a computer-connected world would change the nature, and wages, of power. As Cosmo tells Marty: “It’s not about who has the most bullets, it’s about who controls the information: What we see and hear, how we work, what we think. It’s all about the information.”

That may seem like an obvious statement in 2012, but it was written—by Robinson, and by War Games-screenwriters Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes—before Google, before Facebook, before smartphones, before any of us had email. And it’s not just that the screenwriters recognized that information would be the coin of the digital realm. They had a dark vision in which governments and private enterprise alike would go to law-breaking lengths to access that information. I remember re-watching Sneakers around the time it was revealed that the NSA had been secretly (and illegally) wiretapping American citizens. Marty may have palmed the circuit board from the little black box at the end of Sneakers, but the NSA found a way to spy on us anyway.

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Is Sneakers perfect? It’s not. A couple of the jokey moments fall as flat as Martin Bishop trying to hurdle a desk. One too many of the movie’s riddles is solved by Whistler’s superhuman hearing. And even after all these years and viewings, I’m not sure I can tell you what Cosmo was up to: Why did he want the black box? Did he really need it to protect the Mafia? Did he really plan to eliminate property records and impose some kind of new world order? How had he become so powerful that even the Russian consul was afraid of him? And what is that accent—did he have an Australian roommate in prison?

But these are quibbles. I watched the movie again last night and enjoyed it as much as ever. Julia, tell me why you adore the movie. Also, can you explain to me what Liz’s day job is? Marty’s love interest appears to train gifted students in piano, but she’s also conversant in cutting-edge number theory. Asked about the Mary McDonnell character in 1992, Lasker said “It wasn’t much of a role, we know—heh.” But without Liz’s smarts—and feminine wiles—the Sneakers never gets their hands on that black box. The only girl in this boy’s club more than earns her keep.

We never had this conversation,
Jabs Wrong Huns

Also in Slate's celebration of the 20th anniversary of the movie Sneakers: Stephen Tobolowsky fondly recalls his role as Werner Brandes; Nicholas Britell explains what makes the film score so great; and Lowen Liu investigates how the movie's "Setec Astronomy" ended up on a black-ops uniform patch and also attempts to re-create one of the most memorable scenes.

John Swansburg is Slate's editorial director. Follow him on Twitter.