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In December 1969, young hackers Martin and Cosmo play at being Robin Hood in a college classroom. “The Republican Party just made a generous donation to the Black Panthers,” Martin announces. A little Santa Claus figurine oversees their endeavor on top of their computer. Their next move: funnel money from Richard Nixon’s personal checking account into the National Association to Legalize Marijuana. Martin steps out for pizza, and Cosmo is dragged off by the police. Martin watches outside helplessly, then disappears into the snow. Fast-forward more than 20 years later, Martin Brice is now Martin Bishop (Robert Redford). Martin and his associates are breaking into a bank. From the team’s bickering to their shabby tech to Martin sliding across a counter, and slipping, and falling, we recognize these aren’t the coolest guys, but they’re likable. We’re already rooting for them.
It turns out this isn’t a heist — it’s a sneak. Martin and his buddies are testing the bank’s security. “It’s a living,” Martin tells the woman typing up his check. “Not a very good one,” she responds. The plot that follows is a series of misdirections: Martin is confronted by men claiming to be NSA agents — they know who he really is and use this knowledge to force him and his team into finding a mathematician named Janek (Donal Logue) and the mysterious black box he invented. The team must reckon with Martin’s past, steal the black box, try to figure out who they stole the black box for, and then steal it again.
Phil Alden Robinson’s Sneakers might just be the most undervalued movie of all time. It’s a political thriller, a caper, “tech-noir,” a little like Three Days of the Condor reimagined as a buddy film. Sneakers is awash in shades of blue, as if its story takes place in the shadows, or in the glow of an old computer screen. James Horner’s score features strings, a choir, and Branford Marsalis on soprano saxophone — it’s a wintry, whimsical, haunting thing. Sneakers is the creation of Phil Alden Robinson, Lawrence Lasker, and Walter F. Parkes, who sought to make a movie they would want to see. It took 10 years to write, ultimately becoming an excuse for these guys to hang out.
Lasker and Parkes stumbled on the world of sneakers when they were researching their WarGames script. Originally they believed the term “sneakers” referred to young hackers, but discovered it really referred to teams of high-tech security experts. They based David Strathairn’s Whistler on phone phreaker Josef Carl Engressia, Jr. aka Joybubbles. Engressia was born blind but became interested in phones at age 4, and at age 7 realized he could whistle just the right tones to activate phone switches. And Sir Ben Kingsley’s Cosmo was inspired by the hacker and phone phreak John Draper, nicknamed Captain Crunch because he discovered that the toy whistle found in Cap’n Crunch cereal mimics the 2600-cycle tone of a disconnect signal, which allowed its user to override the phone system.
Robinson, Parkes, and Lasker pitched Sneakers as a high-tech Dirty Dozen. In an early draft of the script, a zen master helps Martin assemble the team, but here, the team’s already together. In The Making of Sneakers, Dan Aykroyd claims his brother inspired his performance as Darren “Mother” Roskow, but the filmmakers insist Mother is Aykroyd himself. With his conspiracy theories and crystal choker, Mother is a product of the radical ‘60s, and he drives ex-CIA operative Donald Crease (Sidney Poitier) crazy. Crease is the team’s father figure, perceived by Mother as a representative of the establishment. In our introduction to Strathairn’s Irwin “Whistler” Emery — essentially Daredevil in pleated dad slacks — he reads Playboy in Braille. River Phoenix’s Carl Arbogast was a juvenile delinquent the team hired after they caught him hacking his school’s computer system to change his grades. He’s the adopted kid of the bunch, and the character the film’s writers identified with the most. Maybe the most exhilarating scene in Sneakers features Whistler trying to drive the team’s van. Horner knows to score this moment with music that is triumphant, not tense. The film’s strength is in its characters, who are underdogs with distinct personalities, flaws, shady pasts, who are lovable and sometimes obnoxious just like family.
Mary McDonnell’s Liz is the only woman in this boys’ club. Her relationship with Martin is the film’s most mature. She works as a piano teacher, though she was probably on the team herself once. She understands complicated math and cryptography, even Janek’s lecture that was written by a professor at USC — supposedly only about ten people in the real world could understand this lecture. Martin’s criminal past kept them apart and broke them up, though she’s the only one he trusted with his secret.
And then there’s Cosmo, the emotional opposite of Liz, who broadcasts his derangement with an inexplicable accent and ponytail. One of Sneakers’ many twists is that Cosmo didn’t die in prison after all, he got out and he began working with criminals. Cosmo is a jealous brother: he loves Marty but feels betrayed by him. Where Liz is empathic and warm, Cosmo is hollow inside, as evidenced by his cold, angular office, the shark in his aquarium, the Jonathan Borofsky silhouette-sculptures of men on the walls. When Cosmo suspects someone might be listening to his conversation with Martin, it’s no coincidence that the place where Cosmo feels comfortable telling Martin his secrets — and the heart of his office — is a computer. In The Making of Sneakers, Ben Kingsley explained that Martin Bishop was Cosmo’s “emotional circuity,” and that “without Bishop, I’m dead.” All those years without Martin, Cosmo allowed his vision to be reduced to zeroes and ones, information without meaning. Kingsley continued, “shabby, scruffy, messy stuff called emotions is not for Cosmo.”
Martin’s and Cosmo’s final conversation feels like 2 children fighting, yet Cosmo’s battle with Martin takes on the weight of global powers at war. “We won, they lost,” Martin says early on in a conversation about America and the USSR. During the film’s final heist, Cosmo echoes this over loudspeaker to Martin: “I won and you lost.” What Cosmo perceives as his plan to change the world, is perhaps just an attempt to one-up Martin. Phil Alden Robinson said Sneakers is a film about legacy, what people do with their young ideals. For Cosmo, his ideals have become pathological, something sinister, and Martin has nearly forgotten his.
Cosmo’s rantings turned out to be surprisingly sane and prescient, and Cosmo himself seems to foreshadow Wikileaks and Julian Assange. Cosmo believes everything in this world operates not on reality, but our perception of reality: “The world isn’t run by weapons anymore, or energy, or money, it’s run by little ones and zeroes, little bits of data. [ . . . ] There’s a war out there, old friend, a world war. And it’s not about who’s got 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.” Sneakers suggests there is power in knowledge, in the government’s secrets, and in our secrets. The little black box is not just a codebreaker, it’s the codebreaker, but the reveal at the film’s end is that the black box only ever worked for spying on ourselves, on Americans. Martin’s and Cosmo’s suspicions about our government are confirmed. Sneakers has something to say about the system, but that message plays second fiddle to the film’s ideas about human connections. As the sneakers uncover secrets relating to technology and the government, their own secrets are revealed.
The premise of Sneakers is its biggest misdirection of all. What seems to be a movie about high-tech culture is a fundamentally low-tech story. Roger Ebert wrote, “one of the weaknesses of the movie is the way it pretends to be a techno-thriller when in fact it recycles much older traditions.” But it’s not a weakness, it’s the point. Sneakers is about human beings and their relationships, how the solutions to their problems are low-tech: distracting the concierge with a delivery of Liquid Drano, kicking down the door, listening, teamwork, and a dim sum date with Stephen Tobolowsky. (Note: Tobolowsky, a writer, improvised some of his lines as nightmare online dater Werner Brandes.) Even in the world of sneakers, emotional intelligence and quick thinking have more value than information. On the film’s commentary, Robinson explained: “The high-tech stuff becomes sort of tools, but they’re not the answers. There’s something reassuring about that.”
Robinson, Lasker, and Parkes credited Paramount Pictures producer Lindsay Doran for the film’s ending, which originally involved the team throwing the black box off a pier into the bay, then walking off arm-in-arm. Doran told the filmmakers: “they save the world but somehow it’s not enough.” It wasn’t satisfying because Sneakers was never really about saving the world, it was about the team. In a story about “too many secrets,” where everyone seems to insist he should trust no one, Martin knows he can trust them. If it were made today, Sneakers might’ve been a high-octane action movie, something watered-down, without personality, idiosyncrasies, a heart. The final scene of Sneakers represents what makes this movie so special — in a film about espionage and world powers who can’t trust each other and want to destroy each other, the NSA puts the brass ring within the team’s reach, and their requests are surprisingly, endearingly innocent: a cleared record, a trip to Europe and Tahiti, the girl with the Uzi’s phone number, a Winnebago, and peace on earth and goodwill toward men.