Sunday, January 13, 2013

Sneakers, part 4

Scene 7: Investigating Janek, part 1
If you’re looking at Sneakers to understand script structure for scenes, you’ll come away with two things: scenes should be focused; and scenes should be connected clearly (preferably by “because,” not “then” or “and”).

So, scene 1 is the exception, a prologue that’s clearly in the past; but almost all the others we can connect pretty clearly: They do a job but not for much money (2), and because of that, Marty’s happy to meet new customers who know his secret (3), and because of that he’s willing to go meet them at their office where they make a promise that motivates him (4), and because of that he needs to assemble his all-male team (5), and because of that he needs to go recruit Liz (6). 

(Well, he doesn't really need to recruit Liz, as far as he knows. He wants to recruit Liz. Is all this heisting just an excuse to get together with a girl? The 90s were a pretty wacky time.)
And we could say, because he’s got his team on-board, he’s ready to investigate Janek. But investigating Janek is actually pretty boring: they don’t hack into his computer or trick him into giving them his password. Instead, Marty and Liz attend a non-sensical math lecture in the open. It's not really the sort of thing you need to assemble a team for.

The best part of this lecture is that Janek (Donal Logue) walks around, in a white(ish) suit, while math is projected on him (because he's stupidly walking around in front of his screen). Here’s a pretty nice visual sign: Janek is math. So when he goes on about the ultimate code-breaker, we’re not supposed to know what he’s talking about (“a breakthrough of Gaussian proportions”! My God, I’ve always wanted one of those!); but when Liz says that he probably already invented it, we know that she’s right. Of course she’s right, we just saw the proof: Janek is math.

In fact, watching Janek lecture about math is so boring that the filmmakers throw in a little flirtation between Marty and Liz, both of them asking the other if they’re seeing anyone now.

Scene 8: The Russian contingency
Scene 7 starts as a lecture that we’re not supposed to understand, but only get visually, and it continues with one of those interminable, post-talk cocktail parties that's not really interesting to any sense (even taste, except for the chocolate-covered strawberries). And even though Janek is there, the real focus of this mini-scene is Gregor, the Russian ex-spy (played by George Hearn).

A quick note on casting: lots of people in this movie are instantly recognizable, even if that recognition is just “oh, that’s the guy from... you know, that movie.” Some of that recognition might bleed through to the audience's feelings. For instance, when Robert Redford comes on, I expect a charmer, possibly a rogue, but a good guy.

But George Hearn doesn’t trip that switch: when I see him, there’s not a lot of other movies or roles to attach him to. So when I see him as the Russian agent, I have no idea where he’s coming from, and no clue whether or not to trust him. My compliments to the casting director on a perfectly ambiguous choice.

This ambiguity about Gregor continues: he seems affable, inviting Marty and Liz to come see some music at the embassy... and then adds that he’d love to get Marty’s help with some issues; Marty says he’s harmless, but Liz doesn’t trust him. (Although, since Marty is a freelancer, i.e., constantly in need of a job, why can’t Gregor just hire him? Cold War impulses run deep, and Gregor doesn’t want to hire Martin so much as maneuver him into giving a favor.)

And Gregor even admits this ambiguity, commenting on his new title of "cultural attache" that the “last few years has been very confusing for people in my line of work.” Which is kind of charming and honest, which are fun descriptors to attach to a Russian spy. Boy, I hope we see more of him later.

Scene 9: Investigating Janek, part 2--listen, don’t look
From scene 7 we learned that Janek already built his code-breaker, but it’s secret; from scene 8, we learn that the Russians might want it. So maybe the paranoid NSA men aren’t wrong?

But otherwise, 7 and 8 don’t seem like the sort of covert investigating that we expect from this team of misfits. And that’s where scene 9 comes in: the team is across the street from Janek’s office, watching and listening with stuff that’s not all that spy-like--a camera and what amounts to a boom mike held up to his window. Maybe this gives them an underdog feeling for the audience, since they’re up against a brilliant mathematician and world governments? (Later they'll enhance and zoom on the video, giving them that all-important cool factor.)

But things never do go quite smoothly, and while the team is trying to surveil Janek, his lover Elena comes in. She blocks their view of Janek’s password (though in that pre-internet porn era, she gives them another show), and complains that Janek never calls her back.

And so their investigation is for naught, right? Not so fast. Back at home base they use high-tech video equipment to try to get a better view of the password, replaying the scene over and over, and they finally are able to see... nothing.

The clue here though, as Whistler points out annoyingly, is to listen: Elena complains that he never calls back when she leaves a message for his service. So that answering machine that they saw on his desk is a total decoy. In other words, in classic Sneakers switcheroo, not only is the secret out in plain sight, but the clue (Elena’s lovelorn complaint) originally looked like an interruption of the clue (Elena blocking the keyboard).

So maybe that’s why this secret gets uncovered in the dark, at night: because the secret wasn’t to see anything, but to listen. It’s another inversion: instead of seeing the math (scene 7), now we’re supposed to hear the clue (scene 9).

Which means they know where the black box is--and are ready for some serious heisting.

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