I wonder if Sneakers seemed pedestrian in 1992. Other movies must have had a similar look in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. And I wouldn’t be surprised if its familiar surface lowered its box office potential upon release; the innocuous title, Sneakers, even evokes “a bad teen comedy about a hapless junior-high basketball team,” as co-star Stephen Toblowsky later wrote. Yet its gray San Francisco palette and its wondrous James Horner score—which fills the ear with a contemplative section of horns and slithering cymbal susurrus, seems in one moment mournful, gradually transforming, and next aware in a way that gives thought an action beat—does not look or sound like any Hollywood film produced today. More noticeably, Sneakers does not feel like any film produced today.
No one is particularly young in the feature, with the notable exception of the twenty-two-year-old River Phoenix. The film’s stars are Robert Redford, Ben Kingsley, Dan Aykroyd, Sidney Poitier, and Mary McDonnell, all fine looking and robust actors, but hardly the crop of glamorously punk hacker types that populate contemporary electronic espionage thrillers. It’s not only that, though. There is a matter-of-factness and a softness in its tone; there is a casual chemistry amongst the cast; there is an intelligence at work underpinning the action in the film that never overruns it, a comfort with its subject material, an evident chain of conduct. The term “sneakers” refers to the type of hacking the characters perpetrate, but the way this film fits together is not unlike the snugness of just such a well worn shoe.
It’s not a mood evoked by simple ‘90s nostalgia. Sneakers is a finely crafted film. But I doubt its makers expected it to contrast so directly with future Hollywood endeavors.
Films that portray hackers are often criticized for their outlandish conceits, such as rapid-fire typing being the key to all code-cracking. Computers are integral components to electronic espionage but there is also a social engineering aspect, a matter of hunting down the right information, infiltration and flim-flammery that takes place before the deal is completely done. Martin Bishop (Robert Redford) leads a crew of sneakers (what are also referred to as tiger teams in the industry) that hack into businesses to test their security systems. His crew is stocked with misfits that have all run afoul of the law at some point, making them the best and the lowest paid in their areas of expertise. Martin is harboring a secret of his own though, and has lived the last twenty years of his life under a false identity to keep the government off his back. When he is approached by the NSA for an illegal job to steal a revolutionary codebreaker, he rejects it. But they make him an offer he can’t refuse: Do their dirty work and have his record wiped clean, or do nothing and do hard time.
Twenty years ago Martin and his partner Cosmo hacked into the U.S. government and major corporations to make them spread their wealth around. It was an act of youthful idealism and hubris. But a random bit of luck saw Cosmo jailed and Martin escape to Canada. Cosmo later died in prison, and the guilt that Martin bears has kept him from settling down or sleeping well ever since. When the NSA give him a choice, it’s really no choice at all.
This chain of events sets off the plot of Sneakers, and I will say little more about it to keep from spoiling the surprises. There are twists and turns in the narrative to delight anyone who loves heists and caper flicks. And still the film offers much more than that.
Like a grown-up version of The Goonies, Sneakers is fun from beginning to end, and the cast clearly love the ride as much as the audience. The ensemble includes Mary McDonnell as Martin’s once and future love interest, a small role that is tempered by the actress’s wry attitude. David Strathairn as the blind “Whistler” is a delight in every scene he’s in, whether it’s giving smutty advice to Redford over the radio or driving the team’s van through a parking lot in a thrilling climax of hysteria. Also, I’m not sure how to explain this, but the way Sidney Poitier pronounces “Martin” is just really pleasant to the ear.
I was tricked into watching this movie by reading Stephen Toblowsky’s article on Slate (linked above) and thinking this was some unsung comedy classic. Sneakers is not uproariously funny. It’s not an edge of your seat nail biter. It’s not overt in anything it does. What it is, apart from a great soundtrack, is just a fun, compact film. They don’t make them like this anymore, and that’s not a knock against the way they make ‘em now. I don’t know who the audience would be for Sneakers today, except adults who enjoy a fun, compact film.
Peace on Earth, and good will toward men.
Directed by Phil Aiden Robinson