There isn’t a government on this planet that wouldn’t kill us all for that thing.
The film starts with a flashback to 1969 and a couple of college students hacking bank accounts of important public figures. Marty and Cosmo are just a couple of goofballs having fun draining Richard Nixon’s (among others) bank accounts and transferring the funds to worthy causes such as the National Society to Legalize Marijuana. When Marty takes a break to go on a munchie run, he sees the police rushing in and his friend is arrested.
Fast forward to 1992 and Marty is now Martin, with a new last name and a job leading an IT Tiger Team (a group of experts that specialize in testing IT and physical security at businesses.) He is forced into a dangerous game of intrigue after an “FBI agent” threatens to expose his past if he doesn’t steal a remarkable device being developed by a computer scientist.
The team succeeds in their mission, only to find out that what they have in their hands is political dynamite. The box they’ve retrieved is a secret weapon from the spy world that every intelligence agency in the world would kill to possess.
Martin and his team soon finds themselves on the run and rapidly running out of time as assassins and government agents pursue them and the box. All the while, the various parties are being manipulated by a shadowy figure with an agenda of his own.
Sneakers is one of a genre of film that was popular in the 80s and 90s during the personal computer revolution. This genre could be loosely called hacker films, although most are as much about espionage and political maneuvering as they are computers. An early example is War Games, which Sneakers strongly resembles in tone. This isn’t an accident since they share the same script writer Lawrence Lasker.
The cast is a spectacular list of who’s who of Hollywood. Robert Redford, Dan Ackroyd, Sidney Poitier, Ben Kingsley and River Phoenix to name a few. The very smartly written script uses their talents to full advantage. The band of happy hackers are just about the most dysfunctional bunch of counterculture troublemakers you could imagine. Martin (Redford) is a competent team leader who hides some crippling self-doubt and guilt behind a mask of quiet competence.
Ackroyd’s character is just what you would imagine, a conspiracy loving, troublemaking crank who loves provoking his straight laced ex-CIA teammate (Poitier).
While some may think that the characters are way too weird to be realistic. I can say that having been in IT for many years, most of these clowns aren’t too far off the mark. They resemble many of the old breed of programmers and engineers who built the modern computer age. Just with the major quirks dialed to 11. Highly intelligent, motivated and famously hostile to most forms of authority.
Compared to other “hacker” films of the era, Sneakers is a much smarter beast. While not everything shown is 100% correct, the film goes further than others in showing what 1992 era corporate espionage would look like. Bypassing alarms, hacking computers, physical breaking and entering and social engineering are all demonstrated in a plausible way.
The film has a very bleak, often tragic tone and shows a strong distrust of authority. This tone is softened somewhat by the camaraderie and humor among Martin’s team. While they fight like a dysfunctional family, they also trust each other and work spectacularly as a team.
Many of the questions raised in the film are still relevant today. Whether or not privacy still exists in the computer age, is the government holding dangerous secrets and how far does the corruption go in Washington are all questions raised by this fascinating film.
Verdict 3.5 gavels out of 5 Fans of caper films and Le Carre spy novels will find a lot to like in this clever thriller. Sneakers has just enough humor and very distinctive characters to balance out the darker elements. Come for the corporate espionage, stay for well written script and terrific characters.