CCNMA: Tales From the Encrypt — Sneakers

Are your weekend entertainment plans certified? CCNMA is a weekly feature that explores the movie industry’s love-hate relationship with computing technology. This week’s movie is  ONE FROM THE VAULT .

Since movies about computer technology are typically in short supply at the box office, CCNMA is shifting gears this week into what’s most likely to be the column’s default setting. We’ll still head back out to theaters whenever the occasion presents itself. Going forward, however, CCNMA will probably be spending most of its time in the realm of DVDs, Blu-ray, Netflix, etc. Today we’re going to party like it’s 1992 with the Robert Redford classic Sneakers.

Some movies, particularly movies about technology, fade into Bolivian (as Mike Tyson once put it) within months, or even weeks, of being released, but Sneakers is surprisingly resilient. Yes, it’s faintly amusing to watch Sidney Poitier harangue people on a cordless phone that’s roughly the size of a shoebox, and even your 90-something uncle who lives in the sticks and writes irate letters to the editor probably checks his Twitter and posts to Facebook using something far less boxy and bulky than the desktop computers seen here.

The forward-looking and occasionally sobering Sneakers screenplay, on the other hand, often sounds as though it could have been written last week. Here’s a snippet from the movie’s climax: “The world isn’t run by weapons anymore, or energy, or money. It’s run by little ones and zeroes, little bits of data.” The same character, in the same scene, later declares, “There’s a war out there, old friend, a world war, and it’s not about who’s got the most bullets. It’s about who controls the information. What we see and hear, how we work, what we think — it’s all about the information!” Put another way: In IT we trust.

If that isn’t timely enough for you, then consider that Sneakers places a shadowy, little remarked — at least in 1992 — governmental goon squad named the National Security Agency squarely in its crosshairs. Describing the NSA’s mission, one character explains that, “We’re not chartered for domestic surveillance.” (Paging Edward Snowden!)

Even in 1992, the filmmakers weren’t totally buying it. The movie’s MacGuffin is a quasi-magical “black box” codebreaker capable of more or less instantly decrypting codes based on complex mathematical algorithms. When Redford forks it over at the end of film, he ventures a savvy guess that, “The only thing it’d be good for is spying on Americans.”

But we’ve gotten ahead of ourselves.

Sneakers begins with its own backward-looking titter at the spatially cumbersome roots of modern tech, showing two college friends, Marty and Cosmo, plying a massive old rig in a shadowy campus attic. Late on a wintry night, the fellas are using a primitive hack to rob from the rich (including Richard Nixon) and give to the poor. Stumbling into the luck of the damned, Marty happens to leave the building in search of pizza just minutes before the FBI and the cops arrive, whereupon Cosmo goes to prison and his more fortunate compadre goes on the lam.

Fast forward three decades and we learn that Cosmo died behind bars, while Marty (now played by Redford) changed his name and made a new life for himself as a sort of premodern Certified Ethical Hacker, leading a motley crew that tests security systems by breaking and entering to expose vulnerabilities. It’s not a lucrative profession, and Martin Hood and his merry men are barely scraping by when prospective customers in expensive shoes come calling with NSA credentials and an offer the “sneakers” can’t refuse.

Thanks to a wry wit and the occasional zinger that cries out perhaps a little too nakedly for a rim shot, Sneakers is often labeled a comedy or, less dismissively, a caper. And there’s plenty of humor, though the laughs are mostly clever and largely driven by smart casting and nimble acting. Yet despite its abundance of merry byplay, Sneakers is no tech-sprinkled Ocean’s 11. It’s a character-driven mystery first, tense heist thriller second. Period.

The filmmakers — director Phil Alden Robinson co-wrote Sneakers with Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes of WarGames, a movie that’s on my CCNMA to-do list — throw in occasional philosophical ruminations and, yes, keep the banter at a steady burn. The real game, however, is in the perfectly crafted pockets of suspense like the one where whiz kid Carl and blind tech Whistler decide to mess with the gizmo the team has recovered before handing it over to the NSA. The scoring, acting and editing — cutting between the computerized mischief and an abortive Scrabble game — are flawless, along with a brilliant shot that uses the reflective surface of Whistler’s huge dark glasses for a key reveal.

In the future, when movies are beamed directly to enhanced lenses organically bonded to the naked eyeball, Sneakers will still be a ton of fun to sit down with.

PROGRAMMING NOTES

TABLE TALK: There’s a delightful dinner scene in Sneakers where Marty’s obliging ex-girlfriend, undercover on a blind date with an R&D nerd, has to guide her escort into using various words that Marty’s team is recording for a voiceprint sneak. The one she struggles to bring up in casual conversation is “passport,” but travel is certainly a benign topic for a first date, and there aren’t a lot of other words one might say that mean the same thing as passport. What I’d really like to know is how she got him to say “verify.”

TEAM SPIRIT: Redford brings his A-game in Sneakers, and the supporting cast is a fistful of aces. CIA-hardened Crease, Marty’s steely right hand man, will probably go down as Sidney Poitier’s last great film role, while Dan Aykroyd gives a similarly standout performance as conspiracy-addled Mother. River Phoenix (in his next-to-next-to-last role before dying at age 23 in a Hollywood dance club) and David Strathairn round out the team as Carl and Whistler. Each of them is excellent individually, but they also mesh brilliantly as an ensemble, with Mary McDonnell eventually (and seamlessly) blending in as Marty’s acerbic ex, Liz.

RIKKI CARL DON’T LOSE THAT NUMBER: In older movies, the prefix “555” is usually a dead giveaway of a bogus phone number. When Carl hits on a female NSA agent during a key scene in Sneakers, however, she gives him an actual phone number, complete with an area code in San Francisco (where the film is set): (415) 273-9164. So there. (Yes, of course I called it: The Google subscriber I had reached was not available. Exercising great self-restraint, I did not leave a message after the tone.)

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Chip Hartweir

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

CHIP HARTWEIR is a Certified Cinemaniac who likes movies, computers and especially movies about computers. He has won numerous awards for writing about film and has a keyboard with arm's reach most hours of the day. E-mail him at chiphartweir (at) gmail (dot) com.

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