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Let’s Talk About Sneakers, the Most Charming, Baffling Espionage/Heist Movie of the 1990s

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What is Sneakers, the early 90s film featuring Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, Dan Ackroyd, David Strathairn, and River Phoenix as a motley group of security specialists pulling off an impossible job? What is it? Is it a heist movie? A caper, an espionage thriller, a comedy? I know that films can exist within multiple genres at once—the impulse to taxonomize it isn’t the source of my question. What intrigues me is how Sneakers exactly knits qualities from these genres together: instead of feeling super-fueled by multiple genres, jumping between them or fusing them together, it seems a little surprised when hallmarks from those genres manifest, treating them like speed-bumps rather than twists.

This style is rather unexpected, perhaps because the film is so tidy with its expectations: it is a feast of arcs and cliches and callbacks, basically a masterclass in the film school formula of “setup/payoff.” By the end, there isn’t a loose end left to tie; if it knows how to do anything, it’s how to traffic in tropes. Watching it, we expect the film to conform with genre hallmarks as it goes along. But somehow, the film doesn’t seem to expect this of itself.

I’ve never encountered a film that begins by minding its own business as much as Sneakers. I’ll explain. In the film, our five protagonists are all masterminds of various stealthy pursuits: hacking or burglary or surveillance or government-style-intelligence-gathering. They are all also outsiders—to those respective, specialized industries, as well as to mainstream, upstanding society. Neither transgressors nor enforcers, their main occupational hazard is an existence on the fringes of everything, with virtually no one else to keep them company.

Most don’t seem to mind. Marty Bishop (Robert Redford), the group’s cool-headed ringleader, keeps his past secret and his acquaintances limited. Electronics wiz and gadget-master Darren “Mother” Roskow (Dan Ackroyd) is an insufferable conspiracy theorist with no social life. Telecom specialist and phone phreak Irwin “Whistler” Emery (David Stratharin) mostly spends his free time reading or messing with devices. And young hacker-extraordinaire Carl Arbogast (River Phoenix) spends his time fantasizing about girls, since his lack of contact with them makes him amorous and feverish. (When you think about it, nothing underscores the group’s comprehensive alienation so much as this last example—that the famously striking River Phoenix would ever have to struggle with a drought of romantic interest.) Only Donald Crease (Sidney Poitier), the group’s lone ex-lawkeeper (he’s former-CIA), has a life and a family beyond the group. Everyone else would be criminals if they didn’t work together as consultants.

To make a living, they work as penetration testers—offering their supreme skills to companies who want to gauge the strength of their security systems. Perhaps due to the team’s professional restraint—doing law-abiding, but also more boring, work with their manifold illegal talents—they also restrain the genres their film might fall into. Sneakers begins as a film with all the surrounding shades of heist and espionage films, but excludes the most central parts of such films (the actual heists and the actual espionage), and therefore limits the action.

But then Marty winds up basically coerced into taking a possibly-shadier job: the theft of a specific high-tech object, the film’s easy McGuffin. When they embark on this adventure—roping in Marty’s ex-flame Liz (Mary McDonnell) along the way—they begin to realize that they are no longer in control of their carefully-limited narrative. Suddenly, they are jerked firmly into the kind of genre-bending, action-adventure hi-jinks they seem to have long been avoiding. Harboring this dangerous device, they become criminals, fugitives, and targets. They’re not ready for this. In fact, I’ve never seen such a combination of impressive heist skills and abject, fish-out-of-water haplessness presented concurrently in a film. There’s a humility to Sneakers, rather than a suaveness or even a confidence—and maybe that’s why I like it so much.


As I’ve noted, the ingeniousness of Sneakers is that its main characters quickly realize that they are not in control of their story, that they aren’t pulling its strings. This feels so rare in films which involve heists or capers or pursuits, since the protagonists often literally concoct criminal plots which move along the narrative plots. The characters in Sneakers are experts at hacking and breaking into places and stealing stuff, but the film is a series of shrouded stumbling-blocks, one after the other: trials they don’t understand why they must complete, and dangerous events for which they’ve had little-or-no-time to plan.

Philosophical questions emerge. As they navigate the unfolding events, are the characters acting of their own free will, or are they playing right into someone’s hands—fulfilling a proscribed script? They don’t know much about their mission; all they have to go on is the name of a company: “Setec Astronomy,” which they realize, much to their vexation, is an anagram of “too many secrets.” Their desperate attempt to figure out who is controlling their story verges on the existential or the religious. In this way, Sneakers overlays a sly suggestion of narrative as an ontological, metaphysical problem onto its playing with narrative as a literal one. In other words, is the nature of existence the experience of having our eclipsing genres chosen for us, no matter how much we might resist them?

This development is intriguing because Sneakers is predominantly concerned with the idea that shady government outfits, or even simply the rich, run the world, rather than, say, a deity. We don’t know too much about Marty’s life, but we know that his ideologies aren’t aligned with whatever the corporation Setec Astronomy really is; the first time we meet him, in a flashback, is during his college years, when he and a friend break some computer networks, redistributing funds from the coffers of conservative groups into those of progressive ones.

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-bleary eyed, as if from death into the afterlife—observing as he blinks that the afterlife looks like capitalism, and worse, its precise location is some sort of suburban corporate park. Setec Astronomy handily collapses the scientific or spiritual mysteries of “the great beyond” with the insider machinations done for corporate interest—cynically remarking that “the almighty” of Sneakers is an invisible hand of the market rather than an invisible hand of God. What is our villain called, when we finally see him? He’s named, rather heavenly, “Cosmo.”

But we realize when we finally see him that we already know him! This is Sneakers’s most obviously foreseeable twist. Cosmo (Ben Kingsley) is Marty’s old college friend, with whom he had engaged in renegade cyber-socialism. That fateful night of youthful hacking, Cosmo had been caught and carted off by the feds to prison, while Marty had managed to hide. On the run ever since, and living under an alias, Marty has long-believed, guiltily, that Cosmo died in prison. In a sense he had; while incarcerated, Cosmo developed ties to organized crime and started to use his hacking skills for his own financial gain, rather than for his former humanitarian ideals. He is clearly a Lucifer figure—born with exceptional power that he must use to serve others, but ultimately greedy and willing to overthrow a more collaborative system for one of dominance and authoritarian rule.

Indeed, Cosmo is revealed to be the figure ultimately controlling everything, on every level of Sneakers—manipulating Marty and his friends for vengeance, as well as for access to the “black box” Marty has stolen, which turns out to be a Rosetta Stone of the future, a cyber-backdoor into every top-secret computer network in the world. Cosmo wants to use this device to update Marty’s criminal files so that he’s finally able to be caught, as well as more successfully build his evil business empire, as well as take a final step towards omnipotence. An unholy trinity of domination. He’s the reason Marty’s well-crafted and safe life suddenly swerves to take on qualities from comic capers and explosive sly movies. He’s doing it because his own story’s personal genre is a revenge tale.


Luckily, once the mystery of Cosmo’s identity has been revealed, Marty and his crew are able to get a handle on the plot—taking the story back, by plotting a bona-fide heist. At this point in the film, the start of its third act, Sneakers doesn’t merely collide with tropes from certain film varieties—it firmly decides to sport the genre that will do the most good. Movies about large-scale theft are not intrinsically democratic (despite the collaborative nature of the heist act, in similar movies, thieves make off with the booty themselves far too many times). But heist movies can be democratic! Luckily, Marty’s values have not changed. He doesn’t want power. He doesn’t want money. What he wants is to look out for people. Keep them out of jail. Give them meaningful work that allows them to make good on their special skills.

Helmed by Marty and Crease, the film’s final act transpires in the style of a true heist film. It’s embracing of a single genre so fully and deeply, at this moment, resists its initial suggestion of “genre” as a form of tyranny—rehabilitating the “heist” that Cosmo had initially designed for his own gain, into one that benefits as many people as possible.

After Marty and company abscond with the box, tricking Cosmo, the film shortly ends. After it ties up every loose end (Crease gets to take his wife on a European vacation, Carl gets a date with a beautiful woman, etc), a lingering shot captures an ambient news report, which announces that the accounts of the Republican National Committee have been bankrupted, shortly around the same time Amnesty International, Greenpeace, and the United Negro College Fund have received anonymous, record-setting donations. Defeating Cosmo in his attempt to gain control over the world’s internet, Marty retains his ideals. He does not fall from grace, as Cosmo had; he fulfills his hopes to help the community.

Sneakers finds fulfillment of many kinds in genre—specifically, in whichever genre allows its characters to share their profits with as many other people as possible. It ends up being a heist story, and that works out for the best. In this way, Sneakers avoids the meta-insinuation that genre, as a concept, is a kind of fascistic institution. Instead, it posits that genre can be read as being both a fate and a choice, but the best kind of story is one in which its characters refuse to be either pawns or kings in a scheme to take power from the people and give more of it to the rich. Regardless of whoever actually does, the wealthy should never run the world.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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