Scene 13: The return of Gregor
Last scene ended with Marty’s gun, this scene opens with it, as Marty pulls Gregor away from the concert at gunpoint and brings him down to the poolroom of the Russian consulate. (Because every Russian consulate in the 90s had a poolroom with a nice bit of fog on the water. Then again, this is San Francisco, and the foggy harbor of noir is too hard to pass up.)
Gregor offers to help Marty find the box--since the American codes are totally different than the Russian codes, the Russians would love to have that box. Curiously, Martin decides to trust him after that open expression of how much he’d like to get that box. As we saw from the first scene with Gregor, he comes off trustworthy by acknowledging his ulterior motives. See: he’s not a wolf in sheep’s clothing, he’s just a wolf.
So Gregor takes Marty on a ride, looking through a binder of photographs of various agents. Now, when other people take Marty for a ride, they do so in the idiomatic sense: they manipulate him, but when Gregor does it, there’s no idiom, they’re literally in his car. Marty recognizes Eddie Jones’s character, an NSA agent named Buddy Wallace who left the agency four years ago. Gregor advises Marty to run away since this Wallace works for bad people--who? We never learn from Gregor, which seems unaccountably reticent for the guy who just opened his country’s secret files.
Instead, Marty and Gregor (and his driver) get pulled over by FBI agents. Although Gregor offers Martin amnesty if he stays in the car, Marty gets out and the FBI agents shoot Gregor and the driver with Marty’s own gun, using that other American idiom of “take a ride”--the Mafia meaning, where you take someone for a ride to kill them. So, yeah, I’m not sure that amnesty thing would’ve worked out so well, but clearly getting out of the car didn’t work so great either. Before Eddie Jones bludgeons Marty to unconsciousness, the other fake agent says “Too many secrets.” Were they spying on Martin’s Scrabble game before?
Scene 14: Cosmo
Marty is locked in a car trunk, which really gets pounded into our head since we see both him inside the truck and an external shot of the car trunk as they’re driving. There’s one great mini-scene here where the trunk opens. We might expect that we’re here at the destination, but no, Eddie Jones just knocks him in the head again. What can I say, I’m a sucker for tiny subversions of my expectations.
Speaking of subversions of expectations, check out this crazy office that Marty wakes up in: there’s some small sharks in a tank, repeated man-shaped art on the walls, these weird metal chairs that seem to be hollow, deep blue lighting, a glass room with some big mainframe and benches. (I do my best thinking while sitting in a glass room with a mainframe.) And, weirdest of all, there’s Cosmo, still playing sleight-of-hand tricks on Marty and finally played by Ben Kingsley.
So I guess there’s no reason for Martin to feel guilty about the whole “getting his friend arrested and then abandoning him” thing, since he seems to have come out okay. He didn’t die in prison, but rather found a vocation: IT specialist to the mob. Which is, in a sense, just another organization, like the NSA or the FBI.
So Cosmo explains why he needs the black box: to protect the Mafia’s information, which is encrypted but online. Yeah, that makes no sense, and Marty doesn’t buy it, so Cosmo goes for his second reason: he’ll use the black box to take down the entire capitalist system, wiping out all the financial records and recreating the world as Utopian commune. Marty points out that this is crazy, but maybe only because he’s part of the system now, man. So Cosmo unveils his last reason for wanting the black box: he’ll put Marty’s name into the system so he’ll go to jail. This time, Cosmo will get away scot free.
In a way, this three-part answer is a great echo of the party scene where Marty gave his own three-part answer for why Cosmo and he pulled their financial pranks: we were young, there was a war, there were girls. So there’s one selfish reason (girls/revenge) mixed in with an ideal (against the war/capitalist system) and a position vis-a-vis the system (young/work for the mob).
And yet, here’s where I think Sneakers falls down, in the motivation of its antagonist. We’ll get back to this later, in a summation post on Cosmo’s plot, but let’s just note one thing: Cosmo doesn’t need the black box to send an anonymous tip to the FBI about Martin’s alias. He could’ve done that at any time to make Martin’s life difficult.
Despite that weirdness, this scene fits into the classic “friends growing apart” scenario. It starts with an emphasis on the past relationship by echoing the prologue in a few ways, with Cosmo’s sleight-of-hand and the same “posit-consequence-result-conclusion” game they played in the prologue.
But Marty and Cosmo aren’t the same kids now that they were then. Martin is all grown up, by which we mean that he’s reconciled himself to the system; while Cosmo has only changed in a few ways. For one, his long hair in the opening is now in a pony-tail. The fact that Cosmo works for the mob (a pretty adult career choice) is undercut by a certain adolescent vibe--what teenage boy wouldn’t love to have a shark tank in his office? And that’s not even getting into Cosmo’s cosmic vision of money, where he realizes it’s all, like, about perception, dude. What’s more adolescent than realizing that everything out there is just bullshit and you’re the only one who can see the truth?
So what should be a positive change (my friend is still alive!) becomes a classic rejection scene where the protagonist realizes the danger of one possible character arc for himself. (We all think of ourselves in terms of character arcs, right?) Transpose Cosmo to Vader and Marty to Luke and you get close to the dynamics of this scene: Yay, my friend/dad is alive; boo, my friend/dad is the villain; double-boo, how easy would it be for me to become the villain?
In some guides to structure, Act 1 ends when the character accepts the call to adventure; Act 2 ends when the protagonist is furthest away from the adventure’s goals (which might have switched). So when does Marty hit rock bottom? I argue that it’s here: he’s lost the black box, he’s being framed for murder, his past has come back to haunt him in the person of Cosmo, he’s been tossed out onto the street by Cosmo’s goons to wander the city alone, and, worst of all, he’s back in the system.