Whistler: “I want peace on earth and goodwill toward men.”
Abbot: “We are the United States government! We don’t do that sort of thing!”
Along with L.A. Confidential, which I wrote about here, one of my favorite all-time movies is Sneakers, made in 1992 and directed by Phil Alden Robinson. It’s a light, funny caper film, with a lot of ridiculous but enjoyable hacker nonsense and a great ensemble cast. I first saw it when I was working in a theater pub in Florida, and during its run there I saw twice a night for about two weeks. And that still wasn’t enough: I owned it on VHS and I’ve probably watched it another dozen times in my life. It’s still one of those films that, if it’s on TV, I’ll sit and watch it every single time. Major spoilers to follow.
Robert Redford is Martin Bishop, the head of a security firm who, as a teenager, got caught hacking into bank accounts and computer networks and fled to Canada, leaving his friend Cosmo to take the rap and the jail time. Sydney Poitier is the tightly wound ex-CIA agent Donald Crease, Bishop’s partner at the firm. The rest of the team is comprised of Darryl “Mother” Roskow (Dan Aykroyd), a technician with a head full of conspiracy theories, Erwin Emory, known as “Whistler” (David Strathairn), a blind computer whiz whose sharp ears make up for his lack of sight, and Carl Arbogast (River Phoenix), a young, earnest, yet somewhat awkward prodigy.
Together they work as “white hat” hackers: businesses interested in testing their own security systems pay Bishop and his team to break in and find flaws or weaknesses. Their first job in the film shows them breaking into a bank by commandeering the phone system, conning the security guard, disabling the alarm, and hacking the computerized accounts to withdraw a briefcase full of money (a bit ironic because Bishop’s firm is just barely scraping by).
Soon after, two agents from the National Security Agency visit Bishop’s firm with a proposal: they are looking to steal a “little black box” from a mathematician named Gunter Janek who has developed an algorithm that can crack encrypted codes. Bishop is told that Janek is being funded by “SeTec Astronomy”, a company that may be a front for the Russian government. Though the job has potential risks, Bishop is coerced by the agents who threaten to send him to jail for the crimes he committed as a young man. The rest of the team is on board, not particularly to help Bishop clear his record but because there’s a sizable paycheck in it.
The caper is successful: they locate the box through surveillance and con their way into Janek’s office to steal it. An interruption from Janek’s girlfriend, Elena Rhyzkov, results in the funniest scene of the movie, where Bishop has to invent a reason for being in the office with the help of Whistler and Crease, who speak to him from the surveillance van over an earpiece. It’s a convoluted, ridiculous story they come up with, and they’re constantly having to alter it on the fly while Bishop amusingly stalls for time.
Whistler (over mic): “You’re a private investigator.”
Bishop: “I’m a private investigator.”
Rhyzkov: “But why? Who hired you?”
Rhyzkov: “Who hired you?”
Bishop (eventually): “Mrs. Janek.”
Rhyzkov: “There is not Mrs. Janek!”
Bishop (eventually): “Yeah?”
Whistler (over mic): “Well, you got us stumped.”
Eventually, Bishop convinces Rhyzkov (whose name he pronounces incorrectly and differently each time he says it) that Janek does have a wife, and there’s a perfectly good reason that she hired Bishop, and that Rhyzkov shouldn’t tell Janek anything about it, but should “just keep on loving him.” He continues to recite the nonsense that Whistler is feeding him over the earpiece.
Bishop (listening and reciting): “And never let him know… that you know… what he thinks you don’t know… that you know. You know?”
Whistler (over the mic, quickly): “And give him head whenever he wants.”
Bishop: “And give him he– help. Be a… beacon… in his sad and lonely life.”
That night, they celebrate the successful sneak with a party at Bishop’s office and chat about what they’ll all do with the money they’ve earned. Whistler and Mother eventually get curious about the black box and try it out, discovering, to their growing horror, that it can be used to break into any computer system in the U.S., including the national power grid and the FAA. Meanwhile, Bishop realizes that the name of the company funding the black box, “SeTec Astronomy”, doesn’t mean anything, and starts rearranging the letters with scrabble tiles to see what else they might spell.
After discarding “Montereys Coast”, My Socrates Note” and “Cootys Rat Semen”, he settles on an unnerving possibility:
Too Many Secrets.
As it turns out, the NSA agents that hired Bishop were really thugs working for Cosmo, Bishop’s former friend (played by Ben Kingsley). Bishop is kidnapped, thrown in a trunk, and brought to see Cosmo, who has made a fortune in organized crime. (“Don’t kid yourself, they’re not that organized.”) Cosmo supposedly plans to use the black box to destabilize the world economy. “No more rich people, no more poor people. Everybody’s the same. Isn’t that what we said we always wanted?” Cosmo asks. Still enraged at Bishop’s betrayal, Cosmo has him dumped in the street after framing him for the murder of a member of the Russian consulate.
Without the box, and on the run, the team hides out at the home of Liz (Mary McDonnell), Bishop’s former flame, while they engage in a mini-caper, calling the real NSA while masking their location by bouncing the call off several satellites and using a voice stress analyzer to determine if the NSA agent they’re talking to is being truthful with them (okay, sure). The team realizes their only option is to steal the box back from Cosmo, so yet another caper is born.
This is part of what makes Sneakers so much fun: there’s new cons and capers seemingly every fifteen minutes. Most movies like this have a con at the start to establish the skill of the team, and one big, complicated one at the end, but the film is constantly coming up with new challenges for the team, and while far-fetched and ludicrous, they’re still always clever, inventive and enjoyable.
Redford glides through the movie with his rumpled charm, and the interplay between the paranoid Mother and the skeptical Crease is great, but the best material comes from David Strathairn as Whistler. Because he’s blind, he picks up on a lot that the others don’t, simply by listening. Since he was locked in a trunk, Bishop feels there is no way to determine where Cosmo’s thugs drove him, but Whistler urges him to describe what he heard: the sound of tires driving over seams in the concrete leads them over a specific bridge, the car going over a series of bumps takes them across railroad tracks, and Bishop thinking he heard a cocktail party leads them to the reservoir, where a collection of cackling geese does indeed sound for all the world like people chatting at a raucous party.
“That was very good, Bish,” says Whistler. “Remind me to make you an honorary blind person.”
Staking out Cosmo’s building (a toy company front), they discover a nebbish named Werner Brandes (Stephen Tobolowsky at his Tobolowsky-est) has the office next to Cosmo’s, and the next caper is born: capture Brandes’ voice on tape saying the exact words the security system needs to hear to allow them access: “Hi. My name is Werner Brandes. My voice is my passport. Verify me.” Liz is dispatched on an awkward date with Brandes to coax those words out of him, one by one, and eventually just has to resort to telling Brandes that the word “passport” turns her on to get him to say it (one wonders how she got him to say “verify”). Bishop then enters Cosmo’s office and steals the box, walking at a snail’s pace as to not set off the motion detectors.
Before Bishop can escape, Cosmo gets wind of their plan, takes back the box, and holds them at gunpoint, though despite everything it appears he still is fond of Bishop.
“I cannot kill my friend,” Cosmo says. Then he turns to one of his henchmen. “Kill my friend.”
So much for fondness. Naturally, the team still manages to escape with the box as everyone pitches in to help (including the blind Whistler doing the driving). Back at the office, they’re ambushed by the real NSA (the agent they spoke to on the phone, Bernard Abbott, is played by James Earl Jones). Bishop realizes the NSA wants to use the box to spy on Americans, and leverages this information into getting his team everything they hoped to get by accomplishing the original sneak: Bishop gets his criminal record cleared, Mother gets a Winnebago (burgundy interior), Carl gets a date with an attractive NSA agent (“The young lady with the uzi, is she single?”), and Whistler asks for peace on earth, with Abbot eventually relenting: “All right. I’ll see what I can do.” Amusingly, Liz doesn’t want anything. “Oh, I’m fine,” she says with a dismissive wave, drawing the last of many perfect Redford double-takes in the film.
There are plenty of problems with Sneakers, especially with the computer nonsense, and there are plot holes big enough for Whistler to drive a truck though. The security systems of Cosmo’s office are intricate: keycards, voice verification, heat sensors, motion detectors, but (as in Mission: Impossible‘s CIA break-in) apparently no one thought to install video cameras in the most important places. And it’s a little weird of Cosmo, with all of his precautions, to simply leave the black box sitting on his desk and not in a safe. Also, when Bishop is discovered in Cosmo’s office, there are shots of what appear to be dozens of guards racing around the building, but later, when the team escapes, there are literally none to be seen.
I can forgive it, though: when a movie has enough charm, a collection of strong performances by great actors, clever writing and likable characters, I can pretty much forgive anything.