Sneakers Is a Masterpiece

Why Sneakers Inspires Such Bizarrely Devoted Fans
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Sept. 10 2012 11:00 AM

Sneakers Is a Masterpiece

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Why the movie inspires such bizarre devotion in its fans.

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Robert Redford in Sneakers

Universal Pictures.

I thought we agreed your anagrammatic codename was Shun Brawn Jogs!

Julia Turner Julia Turner

Julia Turner is the editor in chief of Slate and a regular on Slate's Culture Gabfest podcast.

Here’s my confession for you, John, decrypted for your eyes only: I don’t think I’ve ever loved a movie as much as I love Sneakers. Sure, there are movies that are smarter, funnier, more suspenseful—hundreds of them. There are movies that are better in all kinds of ways. But Sneakers is just plain lovable, and I’d argue that it deserves a place alongside Back to the Future and Singin’ in the Rain in the pantheon of purely enjoyable entertainments.

This view is not widely shared—there are few critics who would put the film in such lofty company. But Sneakers generates strangely fervent devotees. Mentioning the film is like a secret handshake. Offer it to the wrong person, and you’ll get a blank stare. But every so often, you’ll find a fellow traveler: Someone who’s memorized Cosmo’s soliloquy on the rooftop. Someone who can perfectly mimic Stephen Tobolowsky’s delivery of the phrase “My voice is my passport.” Someone who spent his teenage years dissecting the film’s score.

Most often, these superfans are members of our generation, the group that falls squarely between X and Y—a little too young to have lived Reality Bites, a little too old to have worshipped Britney Spears. You and I were in our early teens when the film came out. I missed it on the big screen, so I first saw it when I rented it from Video-To-Go a few years later. I kept the tape for a week, watching it every night, making friends come over to see the gem I’d discovered.

Why did we like it so much? The presence of River Phoenix—the heartthrob who died a year after the film came out—didn’t hurt; I still remember one friend rewinding the scene where his character Carl, presented with the opportunity to ask the NSA for anything he wants (money, sports cars, etc.), simply requests the phone number of “the young lady with the Uzi” who is holding him hostage at that moment. Sigh!

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But for me the appeal had more to do with three things: the movie’s puzzles, its dark vision of the world, and its wry tone.

Like any crack team engaged in a caper, Martin Bishop’s gang faces obstacles galore on its way to procuring, then losing, then retrieving that little black box. But they overcome those obstacles in ways that often feel particularly inventive. Sure, the movie borrows elements from Rififi and Ocean’s 11 and other heist films. But it continually adds its own twists, often in the person of Whistler, the preternaturally observant blind man whose keen ear so often comes in handy. When the gang is trying to locate where the box is hidden in a professor’s office, they replay footage of the professor typing at his computer again and again, hoping to discern his password. It’s Whistler, listening to the proceedings, who hears what the professor’s Czech girlfriend is saying (“I leave message here on service but you do not call …”) and deduces that if the professor has a message service, the answering machine on his desk must be a decoy, the box they are looking for. (Turns out one of the technologies this movie was prescient about was the rise of voicemail.) I also love the gag where, in order to beat a motion detector, Robert Redford must move with the deliberateness of a doped-up tortoise, slowing the “action” in this movie down to a crawl.

But the movie balances these gimmicks with a vivid portrait of the uncertainty of the years after the Cold War. Before one character, a Russian spy turned “cultural attaché,” meets his maker, he warns Martin, “You won’t know who to trust.” The line serves as a focal point for the film, which features Russians allied with Americans, pits the NSA against the FBI, and sets Cosmo’s band of weirdos at “Playtronics”—the toy company that is their front operation—against everyone else. (At one point, the Russian attaché shows Martin a look book of American spies the Russians have been keeping an eye on—the sort of collaboration that would have been unthinkable just years before.) The notion of having to sort out who your enemies really are, the notion that a corporation could be more dangerous than any state, these felt new—and newly unsettling—in 1992. The film doesn’t have anything particularly brilliant to say about the new world order, but the sophistication (and, at the time, novelty) of its perspective lent Sneakers some depth.

What’s most remarkable to me, though, is how the movie balances its clever gags with its ominous evocation of the precarious state of the world. Throughout, our heroes are sardonic and unflappable. They’re not striving and sweating like Mission Impossible’s Ethan Hunt to prevent a nuclear detonation. They don’t hubristically feel the weight of the world on their shoulders. They’re just a bunch of scrappers who are in awe of the powerful device they’ve discovered, and what it might mean for the future of the planet. They can’t quite believe they’re in this fix, and they spend the movie trying to untangle themselves—and hopefully not hurt too many others in the process.

For this we can thank the writers, who take an understated approach, often leaving things unsaid when a raised eyebrow from Redford will do. (One of my favorite moments in the film is when Phoenix’s Carl—gearing up for a mission in a slightly-too-gung-ho manner—blackens his face with soot. Crease and Bishop show up dressed like normal people. Their wordless appreciation of his ensemble still makes me laugh.) The direction helps, too—you’re right, John, that the movie is impeccably paced.

But I think the reason the movie speaks to people our age may have something to do with the film’s vision of heroism. It offers a smart, sideways bunch of heroes—wary of all governments and all corporations (but no longer shocked by their malfeasance), reluctant to act in the face of so much uncertainty, but determined to keep tools of destruction out of the wrong hands.

John, I’m curious to hear which characters you like best. I can’t profess to explain Liz’s profession (aren’t musicians generally supposed to have an aptitude for math?), but I admire her deadpan—she nabs many of the movie’s best lines. I also want to know what you make of Martin and Cosmo’s origins as countercultural ’60s superhackers. How do those politics affect your reading of the film?

And just one more mystery for you to decode: How many syllables are there in Ben Kingsley’s pronunciation of the word “disaster”? (I count four, and would render it phonetically thus: disayastuh. Perhaps he was trying to tell us something?)

Yours,

I Junta Ruler

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.

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