To trust can be murder.
6Back in 1992, hacking and phone freaking were just starting to become mainstream. Connecting computers via phone lines was more common, even if the internet was still rather niche, and confined to a small, but growing number of academics and IT savvy professionals. Sneakers almost feels like it was slightly late to the party, with Wargames (1983) not really looking as if it was almost a decade earlier. That being said, the technology is almost secondary to the plot in Sneakers, being a tense thriller first and a techie movie second. It is interesting to note that the same writing partnership of Lasker and Parkes were responsible for both movies and indeed, the initial plot for Sneakers was conceived in parallel to Wargames. There can be no denying the all star cast, with Robert Redford as Marty Bishop, the leader of a freelance group of commercial cyber-security analysts. His team consists of Whistler (David Strathairn), Donald (Sidney Poitier), Mother (Dan Aykroyd) and Carl (River Phoenix). Between them, they hack and break into banks and other corporations to expose flaws in their security.
The movie itself starts with a flashback to 1969, with Marty and his then college friend Cosmo accessing government bank records to redistribute political wealth to their own pet causes. Cosmo is caught in a raid, but Marty escapes, changing his name to evade the warrant out for his arrest. Gary Hershberger who plays the young Marty looks more like a young Robert Redford than well, Robert Redford! Without checking the cast list, you could be forgiven for thinking that it was Redford, his age masked with makeup and poor lighting.
Spin forward to the present day (1991) and we find that Marty has changed very little. He is now leading an independent team of technological geeks and security service outcasts to test the security of the nation’s banks and industry. It’s not all dialling in and hijacking the security, some of it involves physically accessing the building to plant devices on the internal network or make changes to their systems. For this, Marty has Carl, youngest and fittest of the team and always ready to climb through an air vent or pick a door lock. Whistler is Marty’s phone phreaker – a now long since obsolete skill in using whistles and audio tones to re-program phone systems to allow free calls. He is blind and it is hinted at that the loss of one sense has heightened his others, allowing him to hear things others miss.
This is at least a nod of respect to Joe Engressia, a blind phreaker who was quite notorious in hacking circles some years earlier. Mother is the other half of the techno twins, providing the bulk of the hardware and gadgets the team use to infiltrate their targets. Something of a conspiracy nut, he firmly believes in aliens, that JFK is still alive and the moon landings were faked. This is all something of a drain on Donald, the ex-FBI agent and security expert. His past is somewhat shady, but you get the feeling that he is not a man to be crossed. Marty’s skills are more practical, leaving you with the impression that he is more of an all rounder, using his experience to lead the team rather than possessing specific technical skills. Unfortunately, his management skills are not up to much and the team appear short of money, at least if their surveillance van and office is anything to go by.
Marty is approached by two men, who claim to be agents from the NSA. They want him to acquire a mysterious device, invented by an advanced mathematician, that can supposedly de-crypt any computer system. At first Marty refuses, but the agents know too much about him and his team, and reluctantly he accepts. He ropes in his old flame - Liz (Mary McDonnell) to go with him to see a lecture by the enigmatic Dr Janek and gain some intelligence on him. She is reluctant to help him, but is soon too involved to back out and somehow finds herself as part of the team. The evidence the team uncovers points to Janek being funded by the Russians, and this strengthens Marty’s resolve to recover the device. The actual theft is not very hi-tech, but Marty is forced to rely on his wits – and “helpful” suggestions via a radio earpiece from his team to extricate himself after he is caught red handed by Janek’s Russian lover.
The movie is quite light hearted, with frequent subtle humour. Aykroyd’s portrayal of the geeky, unkempt conspiracy theorist is spot on, ably supported by the dialogue and set dressing. The team’s surveillance van is a scruffy mix of technology, braille Playboy magazines and sweet wrappers. None of the kit looks to be particularly state of the art – even for the period, but Mother makes it all work and keeps it running, no doubt late into the night.
As thrillers go, Sneakers is quite easy to follow, but with enough twists to keep things interesting. As we move into the second half of the movie, things start to get real for the team. They learn that Janek has been murdered and also that their NSA contacts are not all they seem. The true power of the device becomes clear to Donald and he puts the whole team on lock down while they figure out what to do. Marty is captured along with the black box and taken to an unknown location where he discovers who is behind the whole scheme and that organised crime has much more to do with it than governments and security agencies. Ben Kingsley plays the baddie with not quite as much malice as perhaps the role demands.
Whistler comes to the fore here, helping Marty to work out where he was taken by questioning him about the journey and pinpointing the location. This leads to a plan to steal back the device, but how will they defeat the hi-tech security, not to mention the goons with guns…
This is not a classic movie by any measure, but it is still a well paced thriller with enough to keep you interested. The outdated technology does not detract, as it is not central to the movie, but there are a few plot holes and inconsistencies that will make a tech savvy ten year question the script. The film has dated quite badly, with the hairstyles, clothes and vehicles firmly planting it in the early 90’s. As one of the last outings for the departed River Phoenix, it is a shame his role was not larger, but he acquitted himself well. For all of this, I enjoyed the movie and it retains its charm as a gentle thriller, with little violence and bad language. It is a bit too predictable and the iPhone generation will just spend their time picking holes in some of the technical aspects, but I for one am glad to add it to the collection.
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