In the Class of … series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — seven from 1992 (the extra in June’s double-feature column) and six from 2002. The self-imposed rules of the column: No films with an Oscar nomination and no films among their year’s top-10 box-office grossers.
Consider 1992’s Sneakers as Mission: Quite Possible. This tale of a group of (mostly) middle-aged hackers chasing a holy grail of decryption devices is a pragmatically paranoid and perfectly paced techno-thriller. It also confronts the difficulty of reconciling rage against the machine once that machine ascertains, analyzes and assimilates your method of rebellion. The monolith learns the rules. It disguises itself with decorum. It gets bigger as the stones you toss at it get smaller. It thrives on the energy you send against it, and neither is the world a safer place after all this. It just means official seals and signatures more deeply sanction the danger it delivers.
Although hardly at the insidious level of, say, The Parallax View, Sneakers remains ideologically disquieting. And yet there remains a deft whimsy to the film, as well as distinct humanity that sustains it well past the sell-by date of its displayed technology. With its themes of preserving the purity of purpose amid the inevitable churn of progress, it’s perhaps not quite as hard a 180 from director Phil Alden Robinson’s previous film, Field of Dreams, as it might seem. Robinson also co-wrote Sneakers (along with Oscar-nominated WarGames writers Lawrence Lasker and Walter Parkes) and boarded the project after the casting of Robert Redford — himself a generational emblem of skirting Hollywood’s status quo just enough to productively evolve systems from the inside.
Sneakers opens in 1969, when a pair of intellectually, and impishly, industrious college students infiltrate bank systems to fund their progressive political causes of choice. When pizza-run duties fall on Martin Brice, he seems like the unlucky one heading out at the height of the heist. But as the cops swarm, his chum Cosmo is arrested, and Martin heads north to Canada until the coast is clear.
More than 20 years later, Martin (Redford) lives under the name Martin Bishop (a clever nod to a deep-cut Easter egg in Redford’s Three Days of the Condor) and runs a security consulting team. They are conspiracy aficionado and electronics technician Mother (Dan Aykroyd, essentially playing himself), blind telecommunications hacker and team linchpin Whistler (David Strathairn), anxious next-gen genius Carl (the late River Phoenix), and Crease (the late Sidney Poitier), a family man who left behind the CIA. Crease lends crumbs of credibility to a group that would otherwise be a squabbling squad a la the X Files’ Lone Gunmen; that said, their bickering often creates all the aggravated chaos necessary to circumvent the systems they test.
Martin runs a business where the employee roster outpaces the client list — a reflection of his generosity to compensate misfits who have similar gifts (and troubled pasts) … and his survivor’s guilt for leaving behind Cosmo, who died in prison. Martin prefers shadows to the sunlight and stays out of government jobs altogether until the day a pair of National Security Agency officers issues a threatening request to which Martin must respond. They don’t ask Martin to recover a black box from a rock-star scientist. They know Martin’s real name. So he can either do their bidding and clear his record, or say no and serve the time he’s averted.
With assistance from his team — and sometimes collaborator / one-time lover Liz (Mary McDonnell) — Martin acquires the box easily enough; as portrayed by Redford, Martin is a master sculptor of bullshit to get behind the right doors. The hard part will be living through the ensuing conspiracy. The NSA folks are not who they appear to be. Martin is implicated in a shocking murder. His team discovers the box can decrypt — and thus destabilize — damn near anything. And Cosmo turns out to be very much alive (and played by a ponytailed, well-tailored Ben Kingsley).
There is a confident, crackerjack and often comic cadence to Sneakers that only comes from sufficient space for the expert instruments assembled to warm up. Using well-orchestrated narrative motifs and movements, Robinson builds the film from the box representing a celebration of all that it makes possible to a fear of all that it makes possible. Crease is the group’s conscience, too, and Poitier lends his own irresistible force of gravity to temper everyone else’s jokes about the godly powers they now possess. More than any of them, Crease knows the danger of tinkering too long and uncovering too much.
Thankfully, this doesn’t lead to ceaseless circle-running, tail-chasing, clip-emptying nonsense. In the first hour of Sneakers, only two gunshots ring out (and they’re also judicious afterward), but their reports reverberate across the whole film — amplifying a chilling escalation of stakes and acute awareness from Martin of how far Cosmo will go to effect change with bullets rather than Martin’s comparatively weak beliefs.
“Did you ever get around to it, Marty? Changing the world?” Cosmo needles his frenemy. “No, I guess not,” Martin replies. It’s here that Martin must own up to the monolith or at least acknowledge his growing obsolescence before it. His is not a moral failure, just a function of humanity, mortality and evolution that, by definition, leaves people and concepts behind, and there are unexpected elements of compassion in Cosmo, too, flummoxing him even in moments where he could assert a stronger upper hand for his nefarious plans.
Sneakers is also expertly cast across the board, with droll comic character actor Stephen Tobolowsky later joining as a nebbish developer from whom the team must procure a highly (and amusingly) specific vocal password. And although the dry, beige office exteriors initially seem drab, they give way to sleek, dark interiors of ominous imagery — enough to make you wonder just what sort of NDA / gain-of-function stuff might be happening at that otherwise innocuous-looking business park on the edge of your town.
Cosmo also asks another key question of Martin: “Don’t you know the places we can go with this?” “Yeah,” Martin says. “There’s nobody there.” With hindsight, Sneakers feels eerily prescient of a present now thwarted by anonymous bots and egregious misinformation. All of us in some way pull the trigger on our own digital vulnerability. And yet there’s hope in the conclusion, in which the team must strike the best possible bargain to save themselves. It suggests that short of peace on Earth and goodwill toward men — amusingly proclaimed as not the “sort of thing” done by the United States government — perhaps a sort of digital detente is a relatively stable compromise. We got there once, Sneakers suggests and, although it will be tougher now, we could get there once more.