Movie of the Month: Sneakers (1992)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made HannaBrandon, and Britnee watch Sneakers (1992).

Boomer: love the movie Sneakers. This movie has everything: government conspiracies, a villain with a praiseworthy goal, hacking, phreaking, a blind man driving a van, the creation of a voiceprint password by cobbling together pieces of recordings, two scenes with River Phoenix in a scrub top, significant anagrams, post-Cold War espionage, ancient car phones, crawlspaces, codenames, rooftop confrontations, extremely futuristic but uncomfortable looking furniture made out of wire mesh, call tracing, electronic toy dogs, complex mathematics, briefcases full of cash, intrigue, prestidigitation, and two-time Emmy, Golden Globe, and Oscar nominee Mary McDonnell. I’ve seen it at least a dozen times and I never, ever get tired of it. 

Martin Bishop (Robert Redford), some twenty years after his friend and fellow idealist Cosmo was arrested while Martin was out getting pizza to celebrate some illegal but morally admirable money transfers, now works with a tiger team of “sneakers.” There’s Crease (Sidney Poitier), ex-C.I.A. and the group’s watchtower man; conspiracy theorist and electronics whiz “Mother” (real-life conspiracy theorist Dan Aykroyd); Irwin “Whistler” Emery (David Strathairn), a blind man whose hearing is so precise that it allows him to participate in the now largely defunct form of hacking known as phreaking; and young, pretty Carl Arbogast (River Phoenix), a hacking prodigy. Only two people know that Martin is actually the still-wanted fugitive once known as Martin Brice: Cosmo, who died in prison, and his ex-girlfriend, Liz (Mary McDonnell), with whom he is still relatively friendly. His secret, and his freedom, are threatened one day when Martin is approached by two men from the NSA (Timothy Busfield and Eddie Jones) who task him with stealing a “black box” piece of decryption hardware from a mathematician named Janek (Donal Logue, in his first film role). Although they succeed in obtaining the device, their payday is complicated by the revelation that they’ve actually been duped by former NSA operatives, now working for a person or persons unknown. Now, the team, including Liz, will have to use all of their wits to avoid not just jail time, but death. 

Sneakers was a box office success. This is owed in no small part, I’m sure, to its all-star cast, which also includes James Earl Jones and Ben Kingsley in roles that are too spoilery to note in a synopsis. It’s got a great soundtrack from the late James Horner, who perfectly balances the film’s intermittent intrigue and danger with its larger comedic tone, creating something that is at turns triumphant, cautious, and playful. Director Phil Alden Robinson, who also wrote the screenplay alongside Walter F. Parkes and Lawrence Lasker (the duo who previously penned the somewhat thematically similar WarGames), seems to be seeking to correct the mistakes of 1985’s Fletch. The earlier film, on which Robinson was an uncredited screenwriter, is also one of intrigue with touches of comedy, but despite Fletch‘s modicum of success at both the box office and with audiences, I agree with Roger Ebert’s contemporary assessment of the movie’s star: “[Chevy] Chase’s performance tends to reduce all the scenes to the same level. […] Fletch needed an actor more interested in playing the character than in playing himself.” Here, Robinson banks on Robert Redford’s longtime association with the conspiracy genre (Three Days of the CondorAll The President’s Men) as well as his natural charisma as an actor to do some of the shorthand of making Sneakers work without having to do too much legwork itself. Of course, every actor is great here; Poitier could have been used more, but he’s the absolute center of every scene that he’s in, and my love of Mary McDonnell is long documented so I won’t repeat myself here. Aykroyd, bless him, makes a meal out of his proto-Mulder role as he effortlessly tosses off lines about increases in cattle mutilations and ties the (unsuccessful, he claims) assassination of JFK to the men behind the Pete Rose scandal

Since I’ve mentioned Ebert, however, it bears noting that he was lukewarm on the film, calling it “sometimes entertaining […] but thin” and claims that it “recycles” older film cliches: “Redford’s team […] is yet another version of the World War II platoon that always had one of everything. […] the black guy, the fat guy, the blind guy, the woman[,] and the Kid.” Although he found parts of Sneakers cliche at points, he also praised Robinson for directing “with skill and imagination.” Brandon, I know that I’ve forced you to watch quite a few conspiracy films over the years; you were moderately positive in our discussion of Winter Soldier but struggled to find something nice to say about Undiscovered CountryGiven that Sneakers is at its core a cyberpunk story like previous Movie of the Month Strange Days, albeit one with a cassette futurism aesthetic, and that I know how much you love The Net, I’m hoping you enjoyed this one. Did it work for you? If so (or if not), why (or what would you have preferred)? 

Brandon: Like the last Mary McDonnell film we discussed as a Movie of the Month selection, Passion Fish, Sneakers mostly landed with me as an Afternoon Movie: low-key mainstream filmmaking best enjoyed while the sun is still out on a profoundly lazy day.  It’s the kind of movie I used to catch on broadcast television as a kid, when commercial breaks would stretch the runtime out to actually take up an entire afternoon, pleasantly so.  At the risk of participating in gender binary rhetoric, I’d say the main difference is that Passion Fish is a Mom Movie, while Sneakers is solidly a Dad Movie — the perfect basic cable background fodder to passively enjoy while your grandpa snores over the soundtrack.  As a “cyberpunk” thriller about elite early-internet hackers, it is absurdly un-hip; it’s all cyber and no punk.  I’ve come to expect my movie hackers to be young, androgynous perverts dressed in glossy patent leather, not middle-aged movie stars who tuck in their shirt-tails.  However, as a big-budget Dad Movie that plays with the same 1990s cyberterror anxieties exploited in the much goofier The Net, I found it highly entertaining.  It feels like a dispatch from a bygone studio filmmaking era when movie stars actually drove ticket sales, so that their importance on the screen is stressed way more than directorial style or production design — which are slick enough here but deliberately avoid calling attention to themselves.

As a result, I was more invested in the charm of the casting and the performances than I was in the actual espionage plot, which boils down to a global-scale hacking MacGuffin that has since become standard to most modern blockbusters in the MCU and Fast & Furious vein.  We’re introduced to Redford’s motley crew of square-looking cybercriminals in two separate rollcalls: one in which NSA agents read out their respective arrest records to quickly sketch out their past, and one in which they individually dance to Motown records with Mary McDonnell to show off their personal quirks.  I found the movie to be most vibrantly alive in those two scenes because of its general commitment to highlighting the eccentricities of its cast.  Redford & Poitier squeeze in an obligatory “We’re getting too old for this shit” quip in the first ten minutes of the film, but outside of those two rollcalls it’s rare for the movie to acknowledge just how out-of-place and Ordinary its elite hackers look (at least when compared to other 90s gems like Hackers and The Matrix), when that’s the only thing I really wanted to dwell on.  I could’ve watched an entire movie about Dan Akroyd’s awkwardly past-his-prime Mall Goth conspiracy theorist, for instance, since that role could’ve been much more comfortably filled by a Janeane Garofalo or a Fairuza Balk type without any change in demeanor or costuming.  What is Mother’s deal?  I’d love to know.

Britnee, were you similarly distracted by the movie’s casting & costuming of its “cyberpunk” hackers?  Who were the highlights (or lowlights) of the film’s cast of characters for you?

Britnee: I have to admit that Sneakers took me by surprise when I realized it was a hacker movie. I’ve known about its existence for years. It was always hanging out in my local library’s VHS collection. Its cover is a sneaky look at Robert Redford with a group of middle aged pals, so I just always assumed it was about him owning a shoe store in New England or something along those lines. It turns out that I was way off.

Like Brandon, I always expect hacker films to have a cast of sexy 90s cyperpunks. Leather pants, spiky hair, and those tiny cyber sunglasses that make no sense but all the sense at the same time. The only other way I’ve seen a hacker represented in a movie is a gamer guy with a messy t-shirt or a girl with a tight black tank top and cargo pants. The group in Sneakers is far from what I’m used to seeing as hackers in film. They look like my great-uncle and his group of wacky friends. Maybe Hollywood is working with the dark web overlords to paint a false picture of what real life computer hackers look like (sexy 90s cyperpunks) so we don’t think to consider middle aged sports bar crews as real hackers. Phil Robinson and friends were probably risking everything  to go against “them” to show us a glimpse of what real hackers are. That’s my Sneakers conspiracy theory, anyway.

All that being said, Robert Redford knocked it out of the park as Marty. He always beams so much charisma on screen, and in Sneakers, he does so while balancing being a hacking genius and a hero to dads everywhere.  I actually thought the casting all around was amazing, but I would have loved to see a nerdy middle aged woman in the same garb as Mother as a member of the crew. That would be the only suggestion I would make regarding casting, and that’s just me being selfish.

Something that really fascinated me about Sneakers was the beginning and ending wraparound about taking money from Republicans to give to liberal causes. I was surprised to see that in the movie considering it being in 1992 (post-Regan and in the midst of Bush). And it did tremendously well at the box office! Hanna, was this something that surprised you as well, considering the political climate at the time in the US? 

Hanna: Actually, I think this movie was a pretty safe political bet for Hollywood at the time. Sneakers was released just two months before Clinton’s election in 1992, and Marty—played by white, charismatic, red-blooded American Redford—is, in some ways, a perfect embodiment of the Third Way, a left-center political position that Clinton championed. Marty and his adversary both agree “money’s most powerful ability is to allow bad people to continue doing bad things at the expense of those who don’t have it”; the antagonist wants (or proclaims to want) to completely destroy the binary of wealth by toppling the inherently corrupt economics systems across the globe; in his new world, billionaires will cease to exist. This is obviously an untenable solution, but at least it’s radical. Marty’s idea of economic justice, on the other hand, is moving millions of dollars from the Republican National Convention to non-profits and NGOs, which is a fun joke that doesn’t fundamentally change anything about who is able to wield power and wealth. I would love the RNC to be suddenly and inexplicably bankrupt, but I doubt that the Koch brothers would give up on their political machinations after the RNC’s funding wound up at Greenpeace in the Sneakers universe. The film seemed squarely settled in the camp of without actually challenging the circumstances fueling wealth inequality; the film’s solution isn’t to radically re-think a system that allows a few wealthy people to disproportionately control our political, social, and economic realities, but to periodically move million dollar donations from one (pretty unpopular) organization to philanthropic ones, like Robin Hood for CEOs. At the very least, I wish they had been funneling money from Unilever.

Did any of that have any impact on my opinion or enjoyment of this movie whatsoever? Absolutely not. I loved Sneakers, and crime comedies from the late 90s do not have any kind of responsibility to be politically radical. Like Boomer mentioned, Ebert was soured by Sneakers’s use of material recycled from other movies, and it does play like a movie designed identify every possible permutation of the crime comedy cliché; fortunately for Phil Alden Robinson, I was more than happy to lap it up. I love any and all heist/spy movies, but I especially appreciated the earnest absurdity of Sneakers, from the standard CSI mumbo jumbo (enhancing on the tiniest details of already blurry photos) to goofy spy nonsense involving a room fortified with temperature and motion alarms. These cliches are definitely animated by a stellar cast, and I don’t think this film would have worked quite so well for me if it weren’t for the performances, especially from Redford and Poitier. I was so tickled by Crease’s impassioned probe into the details of Janek’s secret funding at 52:42 that I had to rewind and rewatch it multiple times (“Don’t tell me you can’t do it, because I know you can! And don’t tell me you won’t do it, because I’ve got to have it! Dammit, I need to know, and I need to know now!”), and it couldn’t have worked without Poitier hamming it up. As others have mentioned, Redford perfectly captures a version of the Strong, Good-Hearted, Down-To-Earth Man with smoother edges (like Harrison Ford mixed with Alan Alda, kind of), a character that is equally irresistible to Dads and Moms alike. This is the kind of movie that should have been on annual rotation in my household, and I can’t wait to make up for lost time. 

Lagniappe

Boomer: I’ve been singing this film’s praises ever since it was first brought to my attention some 5-6 years after release, when it turned up at a sleepover. It’s the rare (perhaps the only) film with expressly leftist views that my father tolerated watching more than once, and that should tell you something about its quality, if nothing else. 

Hanna: This movie made me remember how much I enjoy anagrams. I know it’s not a practical encoding technique, but those anagrams in the opening credits really roped me in, and I was on the edge of my seat when Robert Redford started shuffling those Scrabble tiles around. Spy films need more anagrams!

Brandon: As much as I enjoyed this movie as a time capsule of mainstream 90s filmmaking, I’m convinced I would’ve fully loved it as a post-“retirement” Soderbergh heist flick.  Pairing this caliber of movie star casting with the more playful, eccentric visual style of an Ocean’s 12, Logan Lucky, or No Sudden Move would’ve pushed it much closer to the style-over-substance ethos that usually wins my heart.  As is, it’s handsomely staged, but maybe a little too well behaved.  Maybe what I’m saying is that I should finally check out Michael Mann’s Blackhat.

Britnee:  In 2016, NBC planned on making a TV series reboot of Sneakers, but to my knowledge, it looks like nothing came of it. I actually think a Sneakers TV series would be pretty great, so I hope something is still brewing.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
September:
 Britnee presents Hello Again (1987)
October: 
Hanna presents Lisa and the Devil (1973)
November:
Brandon presents Planet of the Vampires (1965)

-The Swampflix Crew

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

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A body of a rich man is found on the main street of a small Mississippi town.  Bumbling local authorities luckily mistake Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) — a quick witted, sharp-dressed homicide detective from Philadelphia — for a suspect. After being taken in, he is dragged into the investigation and small town politics, butting heads with the police chief, minor rednecks, and rich good ole boys. Virgil makes his way surrounded at all times by potentially violent white supremacists, who resent him for not only being black but also for being successful, with only facts and quick reflexes as he plunges headfirst into town drama.

The setting of the South itself is as much a character as Virgil. The hot weather permeates every scene of In the Heat of the Night with its humidity. There’s squeaking air conditioners and sweat rolling off of everyone. Every backroad is dusty and treacherous. There’s fields of cotton with hunched over weather beaten pickers right before a scenic driveway to a plantation. The broken down desperation is constant. In the Heat of the Night could have simply been a crime movie (at some point I thought to myself that this movie vaguely has the same feel as a really good Columbo episode) but the setting is everything. Virgil is a successful black man in a town run by poor, angry white men. The heat is as oppressive as the prejudice and bigotry.

The setting is hostile. The people are racist. But it’s pretty satisfying to watch Sidney Poitier play a no nonsense successful detective constantly proving everyone wrong and blatantly disobeying people who order him around like a dog, calling him “boy.” One of the best moments of the movie is when a rich racist man slaps him and without hesitation he slaps back. Being from 1967, this feels like such a rallying point: that finally on film a black man can slap back.

During the opening credits, one thing I found kind of surprising is that Hal Ashby edited this film. I wasn’t aware of his editing work, so I was kind of eager to find out what the guy who directed Harold and Maude and Being There could bring to the editing table. It turns out a lot. His quick cuts and the cinematography of Haskell Wexler (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) result in a movie that’s just as moving technically as it is acting and story-wise.

In the Heat of the Night is a well paced, beautifully shot thriller. Just watching it, you can feel the humid Southern air. Poitier playing a stubborn and heroic bigotry-defying Tibbs is definitely iconic. And even if it weren’t for all of that, it would still be a good crime movie.

-Alli Hobbs