How Sneakers Aged Better than Almost All Computer Thrillers

Movies Features Robert Redford
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How <i>Sneakers</i> Aged Better than Almost All Computer Thrillers

Movies about computers and, later, the internet are notoriously inaccurate, and computer people, especially on the internet, are notoriously fussy about those inaccuracies. We all kind of hate the internet, yet most of us maintain a sibling-like defensiveness about movies that dare depict it, especially when bathed in the negative light most of us can plainly see (at least if we’re on social media). Internet paranoia thrillers of the mid-’90s are now largely regarded as kitsch; internet paranoia dramas of a more recent vintage are derided as fusty.

So it’s especially remarkable that one of the most beloved computer-shenanigans movies came out even earlier than the 1995 internet-movie boom, and stars a bunch of bonafide old guys to boot. This month Sneakers celebrates its 30th birthday, which means it’s still younger than most of its stars at time of release. Above-the-title billing goes to Robert Redford, then in his late 50s. He’s backed up by the legendary Sidney Poitier, then in his mid-60s; Dan Aykroyd and David Strathairn, in their 40s; and the one young buck, a 22-year-old River Phoenix, who would be gone too soon just a little over a year after the movie’s release.

Phoenix’s character Carl isn’t even the hotshot computer expert in the crew, a group of misfits with shady pasts who make a business out of testing banks’ security systems by attempting high-tech break-ins. (Carl’s most crucial contribution: Jumping through a drop ceiling to disarm a bad guy.) That this business is considered sort of shady is something that sticks out decades later: When Redford’s Martin Bishop remarks “it’s a living” about his unusual line of work, the woman writing his paycheck rejoins “Not a very good one.” In 2022, this seems more likely to be an expensive boutique operation, maybe even in spite of its semi-disgraced, criminal-adjacent employees. Of course, the reason that the firm in Sneakers is depicted as ramshackle is the same reason the movie holds up without seeming hopelessly, Hackers-level dated: Much of it is an analog caper, on the cusp of digital transformation.

That caper involves Bishop and his group getting hired by the NSA to retrieve a black box, only to realize they’ve actually handed it over to Cosmo (Ben Kingsley, doing what can only be described as some kind of an accent), an old college friend of Bishop from his radical days. Cosmo has his sights on the box’s ability to universally decrypt any computer system, though his plan for world destruction seems oddly low-key: He tells Bishop about his intention to crash the world’s financial systems, then frames him for murder and has him tossed back on the street. (No real rush on this revolution, it seems.) The team then makes a deal with the actual NSA to retrieve the box in order to clear Bishop’s name. There’s a kind of generic, default faith in the U.S. government to do, if not exactly the right thing, nothing so evil as Cosmo’s dastardly plan to create economic equality.

The movie waffles on Cosmo’s revolutionary aims by turning him into a petty conniver, as interested in revenge on Bishop for his youthful betrayal as the lofty ideals he monologues about; years later, Sneakers-like universal-hacking tools would inspire much globetrotting and vehicle-crashing in movies like whichever Fast & Furious uses that as its MacGuffin. Cosmo’s solipsism dovetails with an uncharitable reading of Sneakers as a text of Baby Boomer weariness, as the active paranoia of the Redford from Three Days at the Condor turns to indifference. (Redford is not technically a Boomer at all, but he seems to be playing one here; the movie’s campus prologue is set in 1969, which puts Bishop 10 or 15 years younger than Redford’s age.) Bishop is ready to roll his eyes when presented with remnants of the Cold War: “We won, they lost, you know? It’s been in a couple of papers.” He extends that skepticism to Cosmo’s anarchic idealism, formerly shared; at the climax, when Cosmo correctly describes a world that’s about to be run by digital information, Redford beats Tommy Lee Jones to the punch by a year with his dismissive “I don’t care.” Though the box can accomplish everything he dreamed of as a young rebel, now he’d rather it didn’t exist at all, and when pressed earlier in the movie, he characterizes his radicalism as a way to meet girls.

It’s a measure of the movie’s deep well of charm that none of this really rankles—in fact, it makes a neat companion piece to some of Redford’s more serious-minded thrillers. Much of the appeal can be boiled down to writer/director Phil Alden Robinson’s execution of the durable boys-club-plus-one-girl heisting formula, smoothed with ample comic relief. Despite the tech at its center, its stars are literally old-fashioned, and spend a lot of time figuring out how to break into a high-security office building. That they need to find the building in the first place, via Bishop’s description of the sound of his car-trunk ride to a secret location, is the kind of detail that makes the movie’s geekiness so much fun.

The heist also involves beating voice-recognition software, evading motion detectors, Strathairn’s Whistler driving literally blind and the gang donning a variety of disguises. No nonsense about hacking the mainframe. The black-box target is the movie’s one piece of tech show-off. The cryptography key inspires a signature moment of discovery and visual accompaniment: The stream of data reflected in Whistler’s oversized sunglasses, with the obligatory piano score sting, as the boys realize what this device can do. If the movie is blasé about tech-forwardness, eager to dismiss Cosmo’s prescience as impotent ranting, Robinson still does a great job shorthanding the potential threat, and somehow, the spectacle of grown adults made nervous over computer hacking doesn’t come across as alarmist. The plot convenience of Cosmo as a ruined idealist may even be overridden by the familiarity of his final scene: A slick mastermind with his own henchmen reverts to a nerd with delusions of grandeur, pleading “don’t go” to his former friend even as he holds him at gunpoint, expressing loneliness through rage and power fantasies.

There’s also some potent (if now bittersweet) nostalgia in how the movie captures a shared understanding about who the real-world bad guys are: Early in the film, Bishop casually slags on George H.W. Bush (then running for re-election) and in the opening flashback he diverts funds from Richard Nixon’s checking account. The team ends the movie by bankrupting the Republican National Committee, leaving some degree of Baby Boomer idealism intact, deferring that particular reputation torpedoing for a few more years or decades. Consider the impromptu demands the team makes of the real NSA at the end of the movie: Uncalculated, relatively modest (a trip to Europe; a tricked-out Winnebago), not demanding the world.

Is there any other techno-thriller that functions so smoothly as a retirement party? Not literally or completely, of course; Redford would remain a consistent presence for many more years, and Strathairn’s profile rose after his banner 1992 (he was also in A League of Their Own, Bob Roberts and Passion Fish, with his Sneakers co-star Mary McDonnell). But this was Poitier’s penultimate fiction film, and a better send-off than his part in The Jackal—as it happens, a direct remake of a ’70s thriller. Though Dan Aykroyd continued to work, Sneakers capped his most fruitful character-actor phase (alongside supporting parts in Driving Miss Daisy, My Girl and Chaplin). Phoenix, of course, was a tragic loss with just a few movies left. Sneakers is too jaunty and light to be called elegiac, but it has managed to become as vintage as the thrillers it echoes, rather than a ’90s relic. Imagine, a time when tech-based paranoia could still have a happy ending.

Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.