What is Sneakers, the early 90’s film starring Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, Dan Ackroyd, David Strathairn and River Phoenix as a motley group of security specialists pulling an impossible job? What is it? Is it an elevator movie? A caper, an espionage thriller, and a comedy? I know that movies can exist in several genres at once – the impulse to taxonomize it is not the source of my question. What fascinates me is how Sneakers accurately knits qualities from these genres together: instead of feeling super-driven by multiple genres, jumping between them or merging them, it seems a little surprised when characteristics from these genres manifest themselves and treat them as speed bumps rather than twists.
This style is quite unexpected, perhaps because the film is so tidy with its expectations: it is a feast for bows and clichés and recall, basically a masterclass in the film school’s formula of “setup / payoff.” At the end, there is not a loose end left to tie; if it knows how to do something, it’s how to trade in tropics. When we see it, we expect the film to fit the characteristics of the genres as it continues. But somehow the film does not seem to expect this by itself.
I have never come across a film that starts with thinking as much about its own business as Sneakers. I explain. In the film, our five main characters are all brains for various covert pursuits: hacking or burglary or surveillance or intelligence gathering. They are all also outsiders – to the respective specialized industries as well as to the ordinary, upright society. Neither transgressors nor enforcers, their greatest occupational danger is an existence on the fringes of everything where almost no one else keeps company.
Most people do not seem to mind. Marty Bishop (Robert Redford), the group’s cold-headed leader, keeps his past a secret and his acquaintances limited. Electronics wiz and gadget master Darren “Mother” Roskow (Dan Ackroyd) is an unbearable conspiracy theorist with no social life. Telecommunications specialist and telephone freak Irwin “Whistler” Emery (David Stratharin) spends most of his free time reading or messing with devices. And the young hacker-extraordinary Carl Arbogast (River Phoenix) spends his time fantasizing about girls as his lack of contact with them makes him loving and feverish. (When you think about it, nothing emphasizes the group’s extensive alienation as much as this last example – that the famous striking river Phoenix will ever have to contend with a drought of romantic interest.) Only Donald Crease (Sidney Poitier), the group’s lone ex-lawyer (he is a former CIA), has a life and a family beyond the group. Everyone else would be criminals if they did not work together as consultants.
To earn a living, they work as penetration testers – they offer their highest skills to companies that want to measure the strength of their security systems. Perhaps because of the team’s professional restraint – performing law-abiding but also more tedious work with their diverse illegal talents – they also limit the genres in which their films may fall. Sneakers begins as a film with all the surrounding nuances of heist and espionage films, but excludes the most central parts of such films (the actual heist and the actual espionage) and therefore limits the action.
But then Marty ends up basically forced to take a possibly brighter job: stealing a certain high-tech object, the film’s light McGuffin. As they embark on this adventure – string in Marty’s former flame Liz (Mary McDonnell) along the way – they begin to realize that they no longer have control over their carefully limited narrative. Suddenly, they are drawn into the kind of genre-bending, action-adventure hi-jinks they seem to have long avoided. By remembering this dangerous entity, they become criminals, refugees and targets. They are not ready for this. In fact, I have never seen such a combination of impressive heist skills and deep, dissatisfaction with fish out of water presented simultaneously in a movie. There is a humility to Sneakers, rather than a suveness or even a self-confidence – and maybe that’s why I like it so much.
As I have noticed, the genius of Sneakers is that its protagonists quickly realize that they have no control over their story, that they do not pull the strings. This is so rarely felt in films involving robberies or hijackings or pursuits, as the main characters often literally put together criminal plots that move along the narrative plot. The characters in Sneakers are experts in hacking and breaking into places and stealing things, but the film is a series of shrouded stumbling blocks, one after the other: attempts, they do not understand why they have to carry out, and dangerous events that they have had a bit of – or no time to plan.
Philosophical questions arise. As they navigate through the unfolding events, the characters act out of their own free will, or do they play right into someone’s hands – do they fill out a forbidden script? They do not know much about their mission; all they have to continue is the name of a company: “Setec Astronomy”, which they, much to their annoyance, are an anagram of “too many secrets.” Their desperate attempt to find out who controls their history is either existential or religious. In this way Sneakers puts a clever suggestion of narrative as an ontological, metaphysical problem on its play with narrative as a literal one. In other words, is the nature of existence the experience that our sun-darkening genres are chosen for us, no matter how much we may resist them?
This development is exciting because Sneakers is predominantly concerned about the idea that shady government suits or even just the rich rule the world rather than, say, a deity. We do not know too much about Marty’s life, but we do know that his ideologies do not agree with what the company Setec Astronomy really is; the first time we meet him, in a flashback, is during his college years, where he and a friend break some computer networks and redistribute funds from the coffers to conservative groups to the progressives.
It’s no coincidence that when we meet our puppet master, it’s in a surreal, futuristic office space. Marty has been knocked out, and he wakes up with blistering eyes, as if from death into the afterlife – observing, while blinking, that the afterlife looks like capitalism, and worse, its exact location is a kind of suburban business park. Setec Astronomy easily collapses the scientific or spiritual mysteries of “the great beyond” with the insider processes done for corporate interest – cynically noting that “the almighty” of Sneakers is an invisible hand on the market rather than an invisible hand from God. What’s our villain’s name when we finally see him? He’s called, pretty heavenly, “Cosmo.”
But we realize when we finally see him that we already know him! This is Sneakers‘s most overtly predictable twist. Cosmo (Ben Kingsley) is Marty’s old college friend with whom he had been dealing with condescending cybersocialism. That fateful night of youthful hacking, Cosmo had been captured and sent by the feds to jail while Marty had managed to hide. On the run ever since and living under an alias, Marty has long believed, guilty, that Cosmo died in prison. In a way, he had; while imprisoned, Cosmo developed ties to organized crime and began using his hacking skills for his own financial gain rather than for his former humanitarian ideals. He is clearly a Lucifer figure – born with unique power that he must use to serve others, but ultimately greedy and willing to overthrow a more cooperative system of domination and authoritarian rule.
In fact, Cosmo is revealed to be the figure who ultimately controls everything at all levels of Sneakers—Manipulate Marty and his friends for revenge as well as for access to the “black box” Marty has stolen, which turns out to be a future from Rosetta, a cyber backdoor to any top-secret computer network in the world. Cosmo wants to use this device to update Marty’s criminal files so he can finally be captured, as well as more successfully build his evil business empire as well as take one last step towards omnipotence. An unholy trinity supremacy. He’s the reason Marty’s well – designed and secure life suddenly swings to take qualities from comic hijackers and explosive lure films. He does so because his own story’s personal genre is a revenge tale.
Fortunately, once the mystery of Cosmo’s identity is revealed, Marty and his crew are able to grab the action – take the story back by planning a bona fide heist. At this point in the film, the start of his third act, Sneakers not only collides with tropes from certain film variants – it certainly decides to play the genre that will do the most good. Films about large-scale theft are not inherently democratic (despite the cooperative nature of the heist act, thieves in similar films make up far too many times with the loot themselves). One heist movie able to be democratic! Fortunately, Marty’s values have not changed. He does not want power. He does not want money. What he wants is to keep an eye on people. Keep them out of jail. Give them meaningful work that allows them to leverage their special skills.
The helmet of Marty and Crease shows the last action of the film in the style of a real heist film. It embraces a single genre so fully and deeply, at this moment, the original proposition of “genre” resists as a form of tyranny – the rehabilitation of “heist”, which Cosmo had originally designed for its own gain, to one that benefits so many people as possible.
After Marty and the company avoid the box and fool Cosmo, the movie ends shortly. After tying each loose end (Crease gets to take his wife on a European vacation, Carl gets a date with a beautiful woman, etc.), a long shot catches an ambient news report announcing that the accounts of the Republican National Committee are has gone bankrupt, shortly around the same time, Amnesty International, Greenpeace and the United Negro College Fund have received anonymous, record-breaking donations. Marty defeats Cosmo in his attempt to gain control of the world’s internet and preserves his ideals. He does not fall from grace that Cosmo had; he fulfills his hope of helping society.
Sneakers finds fulfillment of many kinds within the genre – specifically in which genre allows its characters to share their profits with as many other people as possible. It ends up being a heist story and it works best. In this way Sneakers avoids the meta-insinuation that genre as a concept is a kind of fascist institution. Instead, it claims that the genre can be read as being both a destiny and a choice, but the best kind of story is one in which its characters refuse to be either peasants or kings in a system that takes power from the people and gives more of it to the rich. No matter who actually does, the wealthy should never lead the world.