For my birthday (week), I rewatched Sneakers (1992), a film I loved when I first saw it, when I was probably around 14 or 15. Watching it this time, I kept careful note of the ways that the movie kept the plot going and the ways it fell down. So for my birthday, here’s an Alcottian analysis.
If you’ve never seen Sneakers, here’s what you need to know about it: in between the “computers can do what?” of WarGames (1983) and the “computers can do anything, run!” of Hackers and The Net (and GoldenEye to a lesser extent) (all 1995), AOL was introduced to America (1989, 1991), and being online, while still a novelty, was not yet a panic or ubiquitous situation.
(Remember how every show in the 90s had a shitty episode about an online predator?)
Sneakers takes place in this time, and follows a heist team of electronics experts led by Martin Bishop (Robert Redford) as they get caught up in the search for a black box that can decrypt any code, a search that involves them with ex-spy Russians, the American intelligence community, the Mafia, and Martin’s own past. Yet, for all the heaviness this script potentially brings, it remains a quick-moving, light-hearted caper in many ways. Casting Robert Redford might be a nod to that. Let’s call it The Sting III: Electric Boogaloo and move on to the scene/theme breakdown.
Act 1: From opening to call to adventure
Scene 1: Prologue
In 1969, in a snowy landscape (MIT?), Marty and Cosmo are hacking for a difference. They’re moving money from bad causes (the Republican Party and Richard Nixon) to good causes (Black Panthers and the National Association to Legalize Marijuana). As Cosmo notes, “We’re gonna change the world.” But Marty has a slightly different view: “I just wish we could get course credit for this.”
Of course, we know this won’t end well because, after Cosmo asks if this is safe, Marty says “Trust me”--and then we get a quick cut to the cop car outside. (That’s dramatic irony, son.)
With some sleight-of-hand, Cosmo tricks Marty into going out for pizza--”shaken, not stirred,” a nod to their party-crashing into Bond’s intelligence world--and so only Cosmo gets caught by the cops, as Marty runs off into the snowy darkness. (Which is just regular irony.)
Thematically, this prologue sets up almost everything we need to know: the government/organization vs. the rebel hacker; the alignment of hacking with counterculture utopianism; and betrayal--whether that’s Marty’s slight betrayal of that utopianism (what sort of rebel wants course credit for his rebellion?), Cosmo’s betrayal of Marty (the sleight-of-hand trick that sends Marty out into the cold), or Marty’s final abandonment of Cosmo.
And in case this prologue doesn’t have enough irony for you, let’s look at those names: “Martin” is the English version of a name that goes back to Mars; and cosmic “Cosmo” means “order” or “decency.” So our prank-pulling, anti-war, anti-establishment characters are named after war and order.
Scene 2: On the Job
Now that we’ve established our protagonist’s secret shame in a formative moment of his young life, let’s check in on his day-to-day, which means, let’s watch him get his heist on as they break into a bank. We get the full team here, and everyone new gets their own character beat, often with a reveal or a twist:
-blind Whistler (David Straitharn) is reading in Braille, but he’s reading Playboy;
-cool hand Mother (Dan Aykroyd) has gone beyond busting ghosts and is now fully into tin-foil hat conspiracy theory territory (and funny that his introduction is him in a hard hat, under the street, much like in Ghostbusters II (1989));
-callow Carl (oh, River Phoenix!) is blacking up for his infiltration work, which leads to...;
-elder statesman and ex-organization (CIA) man Don Crease (Sidney Poitier) giving him such a look (which we’ll see a lot of), which ties nicely back to his argument with conspiracy-minded Mother.
Every introduction is short and hits those beats so we get a quick glimpse. What are these characters’ secret shames and motivations? We don't really know, since, even with this cast, the film isn’t really an ensemble piece. We only get those amusing quirks and the fact that they are good at what they do.
(Bonus: the bank guard is watching Touch of Evil, a nice way to point up the betrayals and lies that are going to go on in this film by referring to an earlier film full of betrayals and lies.)
As for the job, instead of just moving bits around on a computer from home, this heist requires them to actually break into a bank to move bits around. They deposit a lot of money in Martin Bishop’s account. Is this how Hippies became Yuppies? They go from giving money to charity to stealing money?
Not so much, because it turns out that Martin’s team isn’t stealing money for themselves, but only as a test of the bank’s security. They’re not pranksters or even thieves--they’re corporate troubleshooters, working for a paycheck. Instead of wanting course credit for his pranksmanship, Martin ends this conversation with “Who’s got my check?,” which is the adult version of wanting course credit.
To add insult to injury, the secretary typing out his check notes that it’s not much of a living. So not only has Martin sold his soul to the Man, he’s learned that it’s not worth all that much.
(Besides landing that line and introducing the idea of money troubles in Martin’s life, the secretary also clarifies what his job actually is. Nice use of a minor character to bring us to the next scene, where the team’s lack of money gets exploited by the biggest organization around, the US government.)