For a kid whose passion was computers, any film that dealt with them or hacking was guaranteed to get played over and over in my house. Sneakers was one of those rare films that wasn’t so technical as to alienate a general audience, but was still authentic enough to hold up if you did know a thing or two. It also happened to have an all star cast composed of Robert Redford, Sidney Poiter, Ben Kingsley, Dan Aykroyd, the late River Phoenix, Mary McDonnell (the future president of the 12 colonies), and David Strathairn (the great character/supporting actor of the past 20 years).
It begins with a young Martin Bishop (Robert Redford) and Cosmo (Ben Kingsley) hacking into the Federal Reserve in December of 1969. They are choosing how to redistribute funds from the likes of Nixon, when Martin goes out for pizza. While he’s away, the police show up and take Cosmo to prison, sending Bishop on the run.
Flash forward about 20 years and a Martin Brice (aka Martin Bishop) is breaking into a bank at night with his team. Mother has taken control of the phones posing as a repairman while Redford, Poiter, and Phoenix wait at the fire door for a smoke bomb to go off in a safety deposit box. When it goes off, the fire doors open and they run inside while Strathairn picks up the phone to answer the emergency call from the lone security guard. He tells him to try resetting the alarm. Doing that causes the alarm to turn off. Then Strathairn consoles him that he has done a good job before hanging up the phone in the van he’s sitting in outside the bank. In the meantime, the three men have transferred a sum of money out of the bank using one of its computers. The next morning, Redford meets with their client that happens to be the bank they broke into. He and his team are security auditors and/or pen testers.
With the characters established the film launches right into the main story about a black box that cracks cryptography. Give it something encrypted and it comes out decrypted, it’s that simple. Two men show up at their offices claiming to be NSA and because they act the part, know Redford’s past, put pressure on him, and dangle some money and the possibility of wiping Redford’s past clean in front of them, they are accepted and Redford and his men take the job to steal the box.
The manipulation of perceptions is at the heart of the film and is at it’s most comical when Redford tries to describe to Strathairn, who is blind, what he heard while in the trunk of a car. He remembers going across a bride and being in San Francisco it means one of four possible bridges: Golden Gate, Bay Bridge, San Mateo, and the Dumbarton. They rule out the first two and then narrow it down to San Mateo based on the sound and frequency of the seams in the concrete. After that Redford remembers being driven to what sounded like a cocktail party. That’s ok, Strathairn says to get off at the Reservoir. We see them standing at the edge and can hear the party when the shot pulls back to reveal a flock of geese that sound just like a cocktail party.
As a film lover, the wonderful cast keeps this film important to me. It probably even introduced me to Robert Redford and Sidney Poiter. It also doesn’t feel too dated and the implications of such a box become more and more important with each passing year. Our society has become dependent upon computers and just as we are too trusting of people, and thus easy victims of social engineering, we trust that cryptography and passwords will protect our data. That’s why people freak out when they find out that a service like Dropbox can and will decrypt your data for law enforcement. So the possibilities of such a box are that much more scary and relevant almost 20 years after the films initial release. Obtain such a box and you can go to all sorts of places where nobody is there, but from which you can manipulate the world.
The film also has a nice dumpster diving sequence, a Chinese language version of Bad Bad Leroy Brown, and the one and only Playboy in braille I have ever seen.
Try the anagram that is central to the film