Thursday, January 10, 2013

Sneakers, part 2

Scene 3 and 4: New customers
Scenes 1 and 2 were all set-up: now we know the themes and the characters, with a side order of mystery (what happened to Cosmo after the cops got him). But the viewer might ask, where’s the plot? I think the movie does a good job of forestalling that question by making scene 2 a mini-heist all its own.

But if you were looking for more plot, here it is. We know from scene 2 that the team doesn’t make a lot of money, so here comes some new customers (with “expensive shoes” Carl assures Marty) to offer a sweetheart deal.

(The “meet the customers” scene also allows Martin the opportunity to identify and describe all his team members, giving us info on their rebellions and their skill-sets. It’s a nice way to drive home what we learned in scene 2 and, I think, done in the right order: first the film showed them in action, now it tells us about them.)

The customers turn out to be from the NSA, which people might not have known about in the early 90s, so the film provides a helpful primer via anti-gov Marty: Are you the guys who tap my phone? No, that’s the FBI. Are you the guys who overthrow governments and install friendly dictators? No, that’s the CIA. According to Smiley McSmilerson here (played by Timothy Busfield), the NSA is the good guys.

And if we were tempted to believe him when he said they were the good guys, he adds a stick to his previous carrot of money: he knows “Martin Bishop” is really “Martin Brice” who disappeared after a hacking incident (or as we know it, the prologue).

Now, scene 3 takes place at Marty’s office; and what I’m calling scene 4 takes place at the NSA office in San Francisco. But 4 is really a continuation of 3: they add up to a “call to adventure” (also known, by some screenwriting books, as “the fateful decision,” or by fish as “the hook”).

Marty arrives at the NSA office, gives a beggar some money but doesn’t listen to the beggar’s complaints that the government took his home. Sure, that’s just some homeless raving, but if there’s a lesson in Sneakers, it’s to pay attention when someone comments on the government being sneaky. Marty’s a nice guy, giving money to the needy, but his ignoring of the homeless man’s code will come around later to bite him.

The same two NSA agents--the smiler and the grumpy one (Eddie Jones)--lay out the job they need Marty’s team to pull, a job they want off the records. They think a mathematician named Janek at the Coolidge Institute has a black box that can crack codes. They even think there might be Russian money behind this. But Marty points out the Cold War is over--more evidence that the world changed even without Marty’s pranks.

But the NSA has an even bigger carrot to use on Marty than money: they’ll wipe his record out of the system, making sure that he doesn’t end up like poor Cosmo in prison. (Wait, what happened to Cosmo in prison? The script keeps us dangling about that.) 

Here’s a nice twist the script pulls, to set Marty’s need against itself. Because Marty needs to get out of the system (running into the shadows again), but in order to do that, he has to align himself with the system in the form of the NSA.

So in the great tradition of calls to adventure, here’s a call that Marty can’t refuse. But why is this plot point split up into two scenes? Why couldn’t the NSA agents just lay out the job and make their offer at Marty’s office? My guess: the writers or producers said, “hey, I have a great idea for a reveal later, but we need to get Marty into their office.” This is a strange flaw, but it continues a nice motif of shadow vs. light.

That is, this split (3/4) repeats the split nature of scene 2: scene 2 started in the dark (the heist) and went to light (the reveal that he’s working for the bank, it was just a pretend heist); scene 3 starts in Marty’s dark office, with all its secrets, and moves to scene 4, a lighter office where there are plans to eliminate secrets. Because that’s what the NSA does, right? Cast light on dark subjects?

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