Dir. by Phil Alden Robinson
Starring Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, Dan Aykroyd, David Strathairn and Mary McDonnell
In the late 60s, two college students are caught using early computer modems to hack into bank accounts. One is sent to prison, while the other flees to Canada. Twenty years later, that man, under the assumed name of Martin Bishop, is running a security firm in San Francisco that specializes in performing staged break-ins to test companies’ security procedures. His group is approached by the NSA, who use his criminal background to blackmail him into perpetrating an actual break-in and stealing a device that can break any encryption code. When the job goes south and Bishop is framed for murder, the team has to perform the biggest sneak of their careers to clear his name.
It took forever for my parents to get me to watch this. They must have rented it from the video store three or four times, and for whatever reason (I don’t remember any more), I was never interested in watching it. Once I did, however, it quickly shot up my list of favorite movies of all time. It’s still among my top twenty or so most-watched movies.
Okay, I’m trying something new here. I can’t even pretend that this is a nostalgic movie that I’m watching for the first time in forever. This one is one of my favorite movies, and I’ve watched it over and over. So it’s not one that I can really evaluate honestly as to whether it holds up or not. For me, the answer is undeniably yes (especially when compared to other computer-based movies of the era).
However, what I can do is talk about why I think the movie holds up. For me, it’s down to two big things: the cast and the screenplay. This is pretty much an early 90s dream-team of a cast, and is one that you’d never be able to assemble today, not for the budget this movie had anyway. It’s got Robert Redford, Dan Aykroyd, David Strathairn, Sidney Poitier, River Phoenix and Mary McDonnell as the main team, with Ben Kingsley, James Earl Jones, Timothy Busfield and (much to my surprise when I found out), a very young Donal Logue in his first film role as supporting players. Not to mention “Hey, It’s That Guy” all-star Stephen Tobolowsky, in one of my favorite performances of his ever. Special mention has to go to David Strathairn as Whistler, the blind phone phreaker on the team (probably based off of real-life blind phone phreaker Josef “Joybubbles” Engressia), who is introduced reading a braille Playboy, and is instrumental to almost all of my favorite scenes.
I have a Bachelor’s degree in computer science, and while I haven’t used it much (I’m a librarian now) I still know my way around computers for the most part. In most movies that Hollywood puts out about “hacking”, especially ones from the 80s and 90s, it’s painfully obvious that they’ve been written by someone with absolutely no idea how a computer actually works. Just try watching Hackers some time with someone who has a knowledge of coding and IT. Even as far back as high school, my computer class had a hate-watching party for it.
The script for Sneakers, on the other hand, is one of the few movies from that time period to actually treat computer hacking seriously, and to do a little research first. This movie’s version of hacking is, rightly, just as much social engineering as it is actual code-breaking. They bluff security guards into thinking they’re the fire station responding to an alarm, set up a programmer on a fake date to record him saying his password, and use distraction cons and sleight of hand to break into an office building. When they do obtain the device that they were hired to steal, there is no big red “hack it” button or anything. They have to manually check the chip one sector at a time to find out what’s on it, and use trial and error to figure out how to use it.
Three sequences in particular stand out to me. First, the aforementioned experimenting with the “little black box”, which is intercut with the other half of the team using Scrabble tiles to unscramble the name of the project that produced the box (it turns out to be an anagram for “Too Many Secrets”). Second, a chase sequence done entirely through audio, as Bishop reconstructs the route he took while tied up in the trunk of a car by describing the sounds of the highway to Whistler. And finally, the climax of the film, in which Whistler is the only member of the team available to drive the getaway car, and has to be talked through how to operate the vehicle and negotiate a parking lot completely blind. I could probably pick half a dozen more, but I’ll stop there.
I love caper movies, and this is one of my all-time favorites. Anyone here who hasn’t seen it definitely needs to check it out, especially if you’re a fan of the TV show Leverage (which reminded me a whole lot of this movie, and is also something you should check out if you haven’t. They just announced that it’s getting a reboot with most of the original cast.)
-Whoever cast this movie deserves a bonus for the opening sequence alone. Set twenty years before the rest of the movie, it features two different actors as the young Redford and Kingsley. They look so much like their counterparts that I initially thought they were them in some sort of “young age” makeup.
-My favorite stage musical has long been Sweeney Todd, and my favorite version has always been the early 80s TV special version starring George Hearn. Sneakers is also one of my favorite movies. So why then did I never, ever put together that George Hearn played the Russian spy until just now?
-“Hello, my name is Werner Brandes. My voice is my passport, verify…me?”