Lessons from Sneakers
(a) The protagonist here is often not the agent of the action--he’s often saved or helped by his teammates, without any particular difficulty on his part. Or growth: he begins the movie by running away from a friend after pulling a prank; and he ends the movie after running away from the same friend in order to go pull more pranks. There’s a certain childishness to him that’s charming because, hey, Robert Redford is Robert Redford, even if he’s carrying a backpack. Still, for a fun movie that has resonant themes of information control, no one is going back to this movie because they’re interested in the character.
(b) Personality counts here, especially in the team scenes. When Mother and Crease are observing the heist, it could be a boring set-up shot just to show us where they are; but we’re more amused by the scene by the added bickering between them. (“Cattle mutilations are up.” “Don’t even start.”) Even in big team scenes where people don’t always have something important to do, the screenplay makes a point of including them: so Whistler is reading the code off the black box at the party, Mother is doing the hardware work, and Carl has his black book of impenetrable places (which probably includes a big section on women). Doesn’t Whistler have a black book of his own? No, because then what would Carl be doing?
(c) Every scene moves in some direction: caper films excel at parcelling out progress since the big heist often consists of several mini-quests. Sneakers does this as well with information, parcelling out enough to keep us going, making the audience feel as if its getting somewhere. (This also helps to reinforce important plot setup, as, for instance, when we need to understand what it is Marty’s team does. So we see them at work, the secretary explains it, and then the NSA agents question it.) This is especially true with the big issue of Cosmo: Scene 1) What happened to Cosmo? Scene 4) You don’t want to end up like Cosmo; Scene 11) Cosmo died in prison; Scene 14) Cosmo’s alive!
In a mystery/caper film, besides parcelling out the progress in every scene, the movie can also move forward with various obstacles, twists, and revelations.
But movement forward can also be movement down, towards some low moment. So, for instance, the party scene starts off with happy dancing (everyone dances, especially Liz!) and ends with the suspicious lockdown (everyone is a suspect, especially Liz!).