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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Sneakers (review)

Old News

The geek shall inherit the Earth. That’s what everyone’s afraid of, right? We’ll all have barcodes tattooed on our foreheads and be forced to worship Overlord Bill under pain of having our broadband VR access taken away, right? Don’t worry — you’ll be programmed to love it.

What does this have to do with the price of microchips in Thailand? Or with Sneakers? Just this: Wow, what a quaint little film Sneakers is! Remember when our fear of computers and the people who know how to use them encompassed only little things like accidental nuclear armageddon and discovering your credit card number had been used to buy $25,000 worth of home electronics? Today number theft is a ho-hum reality, a kinda amusing if also vaguely troublesome blurb (“A hacker stuck it to the Man. Cool. I hope he didn’t get my Visa.”) on Eyewitness News between the sports and weather. Now, we’re afraid of the mass enslavement of the human race by machines, and being fed with the liquefied remains of the dead.
But back in 1992 — which is so recent that you probably have socks that old, which is so recent you might even have files on your hard drive that old — all any self-respecting techno-suspense flick had to do was imply that the right hacker with the right equipment could shut down the national power grid and leave you in the dark. That’s barely even worth the bother today, when the power companies will eliminate the middleman and do that for you themselves, especially if you live in California.

Sneakers is just such a self-respecting techno-suspense flick, one that thought — rightly, at the time — it could get away with casting square Robert Redford as an ex radical hacker. Martin Bishop (Redford: The Horse Whisperer, Out of Africa) is so square that he continues to let a little wire-transfer fraud back in college in the 60s haunt him, keeping him underground long past any statute of limitations would have expired. Now he’s a security expert with a Hollywood-pat team of idiosyncratic wackos: ex CIA agent Donald Crease (Sidney Poitier: The Jackal, In the Heat of the Night), who’s actually not all that weird; Whistler Emory (David Strathairn: Simon Birch, L.A. Confidential), who’s blind but hears really well, which also isn’t all that weird; Carl Arbegast (River Phoenix), a brilliant hacker whose not all that weird and so provides Phoenix with little to do in one of his last roles; and Mother (Dan Aykroyd: The House of Mirth, Ghostbusters), who’s like a lone Lone Gunman, full of depressingly ordinary conspiracy theories.

They’re offbeat, they’re unknown quantities, they’re a little criminal, maybe — that’s how Sneakers wants us to see Martin and his team. But they’re awfully nice for such dangerous guys. They’re kinda like Ben Stiller telling you he knows kung-fu, but without the irony. When Martin complains to Donald that “we’re gettin’ too old for this,” he doesn’t even add “shit” at the end. That’s how polite he is.

So when some guys in cheap suits from the National Security Agency come calling, Martin is nice to them, and lets them walk all over him, never once questioning their bullshit story about why they want to hire civilians — and ones with past brushes with the law at that — to do their dirty work. Martin just takes the job — in a more knowing film, you’d start to wonder if Martin wasn’t working an angle. But not here.

There’s many a security system to be cracked — politely — by Martin and his crew on this job for the NSA, many a security guard to fool in a civilized and respectful fashion, many a security keypad to be bypassed in a clever yet mundane way. Sneakers goes on and on — like a rather tedious story told by your favorite aunt that you hate to interrupt, she’d be so crushed — only to get to a meeting with a villain who’s cool, practically Lennon-ish (he’ll make you hum “Imagine no possessions…”), a cleaner version of Tyler Durden. And you can’t help but think what a great film this could have been had it actually been about him instead of being about chasing down a stupid little fucking MacGuffin.

But this MacGuffin… it could shut down the Federal Reserve, Air Traffic Control, the National Power Grid. Oh, the power! The sweet, warm, delicious power! With this thing I could, dare I say it, rule the world!

Gack. How 1992. How so early post-Cold War. Here I am worried about cloned supersheep herding humans for food, and Sneakers wants to get me upset over a few crashed airplanes.


MPAA: rated PG-13

viewed at home on a small screen

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