Sneakers Is a Masterpiece

Sneakers Paints a Surprisingly Unflattering Portrait of the ’60s Counterculture
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Sept. 11 2012 11:00 AM

Sneakers Is a Masterpiece

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Wow, Dan Aykroyd can dance.

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John, you are so right that Sidney Poitier’s formal pronunciation of “Martin” is one of the film’s persistent charms. His Crease might be one of my favorite characters, too, though in thinking about it, I’m hard pressed to pick just one. When I think about my favorite aspects of the film, I keep coming back to its set pieces, the small, pleasurable scenes that are studded throughout.

Julia Turner Julia Turner

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

I love the joyous dance-a-thon that takes place when the gang is celebrating their initial heist of the box, before they’ve figured out the extent of its powers. (Dan Aykroyd’s character Mother, in particular, has impressive moves—he spins Liz around with more fervor and dexterity than you’d expect from a wacko conspiracy theorist.) I also love the moment when Martin and Liz are about to be killed by Cosmo’s goon Wallace, and Martin shouts “Carl, now!” confusing the goon and prompting Carl to crash through the pasteboard ceiling from the air duct directly above them where he’s been hiding. Not to mention the scene when the blind Whistler must drive the getaway van, with guidance from Martin on a rooftop nearby.

(By the way, further evidence that Ron Rosenbaum’s 1971 “phone phreaks” article was an inspiration for Sneakers: The article also features a blind hacker with perfect pitch who figures out how to con Ma Bell by—you guessed it—whistling into the receiver. Rosenbaum confirms that Sneakers writer Lasker consulted him informally over dinner while developing the film.)

In the end, though, I think it’s the character of Marty that I love best. At the core of the film lies his struggle with his own past, and with the lefty political leanings that he has (mostly) left behind. The movie’s portrait of the ’60s counterculture is wildly unflattering, if you think about it. Cosmo’s “power-to-the-people” ethos has evolved into a megalomaniacal radicalism and a plot to destabilize the planet completely by eliminating all records of property and ownership. (Cosmo has something in common with this summer’s Batman villain, Bane.) But Marty’s idealism persists, as we learn in the closing credits, when the RNC declares itself suddenly out of money and Greenpeace and the United Negro College Fund report large anonymous donations. The Robin Hood of the Internet age keeps on keeping on.

As for my brass ring? I’d simply ask the NSA to ensure that moviegoers the world over recognize the greatness and the glory of Sneakers, finally hailing the film as the masterpiece that it is. Or if that’s too tricky to pull off, I’ll settle for peace on earth and goodwill toward men.

Cooty rat semen,

Julia

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.