Sneakers Is a Masterpiece

What the Characters in Sneakers Have in Common with Steve Jobs
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Sept. 11 2012 9:47 AM

Sneakers Is a Masterpiece

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What the movie gets right about hippies and hackers.   

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It’s hard for me to choose a favorite Sneakers character—there so many great ones. Even the movie’s secondary players are rendered in just enough detail to give them dimension: I love the pretentiousness (and the monochromatic outfits) of Janek, the mathematician who builds the decryption device; the unctuousness (want a cappuccino?) of Dick Gordon, the mustachioed Cosmo crony; and the boorishness of Dr. Werner Brandes, played to the hilt by the always excellent Stephen Tobolowsky, who has shared his fond memories of the Sneakers shoot in a Slate essay.

John Swansburg John Swansburg

John Swansburg is Slate's deputy editor.

But if I had to choose, I’d say my favorite character is Sidney Poitier’s Don Crease. He’s the only grown-up in Marty’s little band of hackers: He’s got a wife and daughter, a level head, and decades of actual experience in the CIA. Of course, his tenure at Langley didn’t exactly end well. I always look forward to the moment when Crease reveals why, exactly, he got kicked out of the Agency. One of Cosmo’s men has just pulled a gun on him and called him “midnight.” It turns out the even-keeled ex-spy has a temper—and the bigoted bad guy gets a very serious and satisfying taste of it. And whereas Kingsley’s accent is indeed a disayastuh, I could listen to Poitier read the phone book. I love the way he always calls Redford’s Marty Bishop by his full first name, placing the emphasis on the second syllable. It makes him sound like a reproving parent. Martin!

As for Marty and Cosmo being refugees from the ’60s counterculture, it’s yet another way that Sneakers is smart about hacker culture, which has deep roots in that movement. This is an observation that Slate columnist and blogger Sasha Issenberg made to me when I discovered recently that he, too, is a member of our little cult. Sasha pointed out that Marty and Cosmo bear some resemblance to no less a computer-age eminence than Steve Jobs. As Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson writes of the Apple founder’s high-school years: “It was a time when the geek and hippie worlds were beginning to show some overlap,” and Jobs found a home in both. Like Marty and Cosmo, who open the movie hacking into GOP checking accounts to fund liberal causes, the young Jobs was something of a prankster. The first product he and Steve Wozniak sold wasn’t a personal computer; it was a $150 “Blue Box,” a device that allowed its owner to make long distance phone calls for free, without lining the coffers of corporate giant AT&T.

Sneakers was made during Jobs’ time in the wilderness—after he’d been ousted from Apple, before the triumph of Toy Story—and it’s unlikely the screenwriters had him in mind. But watching the movie again after talking to Sasha, it occurred to me that writers Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes may well have taken some inspiration from those Blue Boxes. The free-call technique had first been discovered by a hacker who went by the name Captain Crunch, who Slate’s Ron Rosenbaum wrote about in Esquire in 1971. Remember how Cosmo got out of prison? He helped some “good family men”—read: Mafiosi—make a few long distance phone calls for free …

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Julia, I’m curious who your favorite Sneakers character is. Also, if you had the NSA over a barrel, what would you ask for? Like you, I love that Carl uses his “brass ring” moment to get the phone number of the girl with the uzi. But all of the team’s wishes are pleasantly quaint: Mother wants a Winnebago, Crease round-trip airfare to Europe (and Tahiti), Marty just wants his good name back, and Liz doesn’t want anything at all. Only Whistler has a grand request: “peace on Earth and good will toward men.” The hippie/hacker nexus lives on.

Be a beacon,

John

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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