‎Cracking the Code: Sneakers at 30

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‎Cracking the Code: Sneakers at 30
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River Phoenix, David Strathairn, Dan Aykroyd and Robert Redford get out from behind the monitor in Sneakers (1992). 

As its thirtieth anniversary sneaks Up, editor-at-large Dominic Corry celebrates an eerily prophetic early-’90s heist caper that bridges the analog-digital divide.

In this Deep Impact column, we explore the deep affection for, and impactful resonance of, films that perhaps haven’t quite gained the position in the visible film canon that their quality and devoted audience warrant. Some of the most effusive enthusiasm on Letterboxd is reserved for these kinds of movies, and this column gives me a chance to uncover the particular passions of the Letterboxd massive.

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Previously, we have covered The Mummy, Interstellar, Moulin Rouge! and The Truman Show, and coming soon, Deep Impact: Deep Impact. Not kidding. That movie owns. But in this edition, we’ll crack the code of 1992’s Sneakers, one of many films on Todd Vaziri’s fantastic Letterboxd list of “best films people haven’t seen” and a worthy entry in the ’90s Dad-Thriller core canon.

Exactly 500 years after Christopher Columbus “discovered” America—an event that several other 1992 films explored, badly—this lighthearted techo-comedy-thriller, which bridged the analog and digital eras, was released into theaters. When audiences sat down to watch it, they were first presented with the following phrases:

A Turnip Cures Elvis

A Few Astral Clerks Repel Newark

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Blond Rhino Spaniel

Fort Red Border

These are all anagrams for: Universal Pictures (the studio), Walter F. Parkes & Lawrence Lasker (the producers and co-writers), Phil Alden Robinson (the director and co-writer) and Robert Redford (the star), respectively.

A 1992 promotional image featuring the Sneakers core cast, clockwise from top left: Dan Aykroyd, Sidney Poitier, River Phoenix, Mary McDonnell, David Strathairn, with Robert Redford center. 

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In presenting its primary credits initially as anagrams, Sneakers conveyed a sense of nerdy playfulness that is maintained throughout the ridiculously entertaining film in both intention and execution. Anagrams show Up again within the context of the story (try unscrambling Cootys Rat Semen!) and the overall mentality emphasizes scientific reasoning and intelligence alongside traditional big-screen derring-do. (The marketing team had fun, too: journalists received the press kit on a floppy disk containing a quasi-encrypted program.)

Robert Redford is the ostensible lead, but from any perspective this is an ensemble film, and it’s one of best ever assembled. Everyone is arguably a leading actor in a supporting role, and their collective chemistry is intoxicatingly casual, thanks in part to the lengthy rehearsals that Phil Alden Robinson swears by.

Marty, Mother and Crease have decryption on their minds. 

Following the anagram fun, the film begins with a prologue (presented in the “square” 4:3 format with washed-out colors) set in 1969. The first image we see is a snowy, night-time exterior shot of an instantly recognizable set: the clock tower from Back to the Future. The Universal backlot building has appeared in plenty of movies and TV shows, but rarely this obviously.

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Inside, two college-aged men are using phone lines to hack various institutions in the name of their ’60s counter-culture ideals. While one pops out to get pizza, the feds descend to arrest his partner-in-hacking. The film then moves to widescreen (via a nifty, snow-to-static transition), leaps forward a couple of decades and introduces our core ensemble, a team of security specialists who are breaking into a bank to test the institution’s penetrability.

Martin Bishop (Redford) is their quick-thinking leader, and he is joined by Crease (Sidney Poitier), a former CIA agent, Mother (Dan Aykroyd), an amiable conspiracy nut, Whistler (David Strathairn), a blind computer and comms specialist, and Carl (River Phoenix), an oddly mannered young hacker-slash-professional prowler. There is at least one role for a woman—their sometimes collaborator, Liz (Mary McDonnell).

Lengthy rehearsals were key to the insane chemistry between the Sneakers cast.

Following their successful “sneak”, the crew are roped in by two NSA agents (played by Timothy Busfield and Eddie Jones, two of the film’s many great character actors) to steal a privately developed code-breaking box that is in danger of falling into the hands of the Russians, even though the Cold War is ostensibly over. Naturally, a series of life-threatening double-crosses come into play, and the job will require the best sneakers in the world (that aren’t Air Jordans).

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“If Spielberg directed Mission: Impossible, it’d be this movie” is a helpful description from MattB101, while Heath Lynch describes the experience as “watching The Usual Suspects merge with Mission: Impossible, even though neither one of them existed on the silver screen before this picture”.

Both assessments help to emphasize just how ahead of its time Sneakers was. It’s arguably the best film about the internet ever made, and it came out before the internet as we know it was even really a thing. The word ‘internet’ isn’t even uttered.

Sneakers takes place in the tiny moment when the analog world overlapped with the coming digital revolution, represented by the rare blending of these two realms on display here. And while there is plenty of computer hacking included, it’s all the more cinematic thanks to the fact that these sneakers also need to get out in the field to get the job done. As Weasalsort notes: “I’d rather see them boost a ‘little black box’ from somewhere than watch a bunch of hackers hacking to steal universal decryption software.”

The big reveal around the black box is that it’s a device that can crack any code—a ridiculous MacGuffin, for sure, but a much more pertinent one than might be found in most films of the era, which allows Sneakers to speak directly to our cryptography-laden modern world.

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“It’s incredibly prescient in how information will be the currency of the future,” writes Matt Goldberg. Wood elaborates: “It’s spooky… Maybe not in practice but conceptually it’s literally the same idea as the NSA spying technology Snowden exposed.”

Plus, Sneakers suspends disbelief much better than certain other contemporaneous films. As Marcin Wichary writes in an early Letterboxd review, “This is a rare movie about technology that gets it right, being accessible for everyone and accurate enough not to offend people familiar with the subject matter. It entertains, but also quietly sneaks interesting things into your head—you can pick Up a lot about asymmetric cryptography, counterintelligence and social engineering (although you won’t ever hear them called that).” Wichary, incidentally, is the Sneakers fanatic who became obsessed with the locating the PlayTronics toy factory building—it’s worth reading about his “Hollywood day” when he finally found it.

“It’s. Your. Mother.”

Having said that, Sneakers may have set the bar too high, too early, for expectations of what a computer whiz can do—at least in Kelly Har’s experience: “When real-life clients ask me to do insane things with bad footage and when I tell them I can’t, they get mad at me because ‘Dan Aykroyd could do it in a few seconds in the 1992 modest box-office success Sneakers, why can’t you?’ and then I feel unreasonably bad for not being able to live Up to the impossible precedent set 30 years ago by an imaginary hacker called Mother. You know, we truly do die a little more each day.”

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As wonderful as the film’s ideas are, most of the joy comes from the supernova charisma generated by the ensemble, something a majority of Letterboxd reviewers take the time to write about. “The charm radiating from everyone in this cast is unreal” writes Patrick Willems, and Dirk agrees: “This is probably one of the best ensemble films ever made. It has a big heart and shows pure love for the genre… the chemistry amongst the actors is just unbelievable… They don’t really make ’em like this anymore!”

They really don’t.

Redford rocks a tidy sweatshirt with his Sneakers.

Redford’s movie-star-ness has rarely been better deployed, and it’s especially fun to see him exploit it at various moments during their con Game-esque heists. I’m confident Soderbergh was paying attention, as George Clooney’s charms are similarly exploited in the Ocean’s franchise.

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And as Josh Gillam notes, Redford’s role is informed in a fun way by his presence in ’70s caper movies like The Sting, and especially his under-appreciated diamond-heist cult fave The Hot Rock, which has plenty of tonal overlap with Sneakers in its break-in scenes. It’s also not difficult to imagine Bishop as an older version of the more principled protagonists he played in Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men. The point is, Redford’s acting baggage really works for him here.

Sneakers represented Poitier’s first acting role in four years, and he clearly has fun as the constantly exasperated Crease (and as Collins points out, “My, it was such a treat to see Sidney Poitier and James Earl Jones on the same screen—even if just for a fleeting second”). Aykroyd’s performance as Mother is so endearing, he manages to make conspiracy theorists seem fun again. These two bounce off each other really nicely.

Multiple Letterboxd reviews refer to Stathairn as the MVP of the cast, playing a character who feels entirely unique in cinema. Whistler is introduced reading a Braille version of a certain magazine (“I knew I was in for an experience when I saw the Playboy in Braille,” writes Forte), and his heightened auditory skills are key to several gambits, including a super sequence where he is able to determine where a kidnapped Bishop was taken based solely on Bishop’s description of the noises he heard while blindfolded in the back of a car.

Phoenix, apparently seeking a reprieve from the intensity of shooting My Own Private Idaho, is a whole heap of fun in what would sadly end Up being one of his final screen performances. The deadpan humor he brings to one of his few supporting roles is joyful to the extreme. There’s a dance montage where he executes moves that foreshadow Leonardo DiCaprio’s loose-limbed boogieing in The Wolf of Wall Street, furthering the notion that Leo is River’s heir-apparent in Hollywood.

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“River Phoenix was really something special, wasn’t he?” Yes, John. 

Phoenix is also perfect in a scene near the end of the film that may be one of the most purely romantic moments in movie history. I won’t spoil it here, but anyone who’s seen Sneakers will know exactly what I’m talking about. The specificities of his charms in this scene will make you mourn the actor all over again (many, many Letterboxd reviews take the time to do so). And McDonnell gets many of the funniest lines in what is in many ways one of the ultimate dudes-being-dudes movies. Her chemistry with Redford is simply scrumptious.

Ben Kingsley eventually shows Up as the baddie, Cosmo, playing several delightful scenes opposite Redford in which they debate the ethics of their respective trajectories. Cosmo wants to use the black box to destroy all records of ownership: “I might be able to crash the whole damn system,” he says. “No more rich people, no more poor people. Everybody’s the same. Isn’t it what we always said we always wanted?” (Looks like Cosmo was an early proponent of Project Mayhem; certainly he is “a socialist’s wet dream,” writes Jillian.)

Ben Kingsley as Cosmo, “a narcissistic tech executive who decides to put himself in charge of controlling the world’s information,” writes Steve. “It fits almost too well.” 

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There have been many films about baby boomers losing sight of their ideals, but this one speaks more to the future than the others. Or, as Jamelle Bouie puts it, “the middle-aged energy of this film is incredibly powerful.” Every one of these seven performers is an acting Oscar nominee (although several weren’t at the time), with Redford, Poitier and Kingsley all winners, although Redford won for directing.

Legendary character actor Stephen Tobolowsky, just prior to his breakout turn in Groundhog Day, also puts in some of his finest work as Werner Brandes, a scientist whom the team targets in order to gain access to the research facility where he works. (Although, the art department may have failed his character somewhat, at least according to Scott, who writes: “Stephen Tobolowsky’s character is supposed to be ‘the world’s most boring human’ but he has a Nagel hanging in his house that I really like, so I don’t know what to think of that.”)

“Mary McDonnell’s character who at first appears to be a throw away love interest ends Up being vital to the plot,” writes Stuart, of Liz’s honey-pot plot. 

In a scene many point to as the highlight of the movie, Liz goes on a date with Werner under an assumed identity (thanks to some pre-Tinder computer-dating hacks) and tries in vain to get him to say certain words that the team can use a recording of to exploit a voice-recognition lock. It’s splendidly convoluted, and you’ll never think about the word “passport” in the same way.

Plus, there’s a killer cameo at the end of the film that is guaranteed to generate a reaction along the lines of Karen Han’s: “Hooting and hollering and pumping my fist in the air when [redacted] shows Up.”

As forward-looking as Sneakers is, plenty of ’80s and ’90s thriller tropes can’t help but rear their heads, but they feel more organic here because the film has so much goodwill. This was the golden age of “zoom in, enhance” and it happens several times in this movie.

Just an icon posing with an icon (Bay Bridge supremacy, y’all). 

Sneakers is set, and was shot, in San Francisco, and it joins Vertigo, Basic Instinct and The Rock in the pantheon of films that artfully exploit the city’s dramatic beauty. The proximity to Silicon Valley only strengthens the technology bona fides. Joshua Allen notes aesthetic connections here, too, in his review: “Robert Redford’s exposed brick office with an all-glass conference room inspiring every Silicon Valley startup for decades to come.”

The screenplay was originated by the writing team of Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes, who broke out with the similarly technology-centric WarGames in 1983. It’s interesting to note the connections between the films in both attitude and subject matter, although Sneakers prioritizes humor moreso than the previous film.

Something of a journeyman studio writer and director, Robinson never made the same kind of film twice, but his filmmaking prowess arguably reached its apex with Sneakers (his directorial follow-Up to the iconic Kevin Costner baseball drama Field of Dreams, although I contend Sneakers is the superior movie). He even pulls out a split-diopter at one point (at 1:05:43 for those playing at home). This film really is the best of both the analog and digital worlds.

No matter how computer-bound the sneaks may be, all roads lead to a real-world showdown. 

We haven’t even mentioned James Horner’s atypical score, informed by delicate woodwind, piano and saxophone compositions, the latter courtesy of Branford Marsalis. The music subtly enriches the tension and sinister technological implications while deepening the relationships.

Exactly the kind of mid-sized mainstream thriller we lament the absence of these days, Sneakers holds Up extremely well and makes a timeless case for the power of a great ensemble. Inventive, charming, funny and extremely light on its feet, the film dances between elaborate heists that require multiple unique angles of approach, effortless character comedy, genuine peril and ’60s introspection, all within the context of the rise of digital technology.

Multiple Letterboxd members recommend watching Sneakers on a lazy Sunday afternoon. No matter what day you choose to watch or rewatch, it’s a delight for anyone who enjoys puzzles, while still being accessible, and indeed essential, to all.

Electric Dreams Showdown—favorite films involving computers, the internet, hacking or the wired world
Stefan’s curated list of movies that outline the history of how hackers have been portrayed in cinema
Rob’s list of 100+ Parapolitical Films to Make You Paranoid
Filipe Furtado’s list of ’90s American action and crime films
The Harmless Peeping Tom—Pop Detective’s list of “non-villainous” men and boys non-consensually spying on women in movies
Sam’s list of Robert Redford political espionage thrillers includes Sneakers, naturally

robert redford

phil alden robinson

river phoenix

sidney poitier

david strathairn

dan aykroyd

anniversary

comedy

1990s

thriller

heist

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