Director – Phil Alden Robinson, Screenplay – Phil Alden Robinson, Lawrence Lasker & Walter F. Parkes, Producers – Lawrence Lasker & Walter F. Parkes, Photography – John Lindley, Music – James Horner, Special Effects Supervisor – Ken Pepiot, Production Design – Patrizia von Brandenstein. Production Company – Universal.
Robert Redford (Martin Bishop/Brice), Ben Kingsley (Cosmo), Mary McDonnell (Liz), Sidney Poitier (Donald Crease), David Strathairn (Erwin ‘Whistler’ Emory), Dan Aykroyd (Mother), River Phoenix (Carl Arbogast), Stephen Tobolowsky (Dr Werner Brandes), George Hearn (Gregor), Eddie Jones (Buddy Wallace), Timothy Busfield (Dick Gordon), Donal Logue (Dr Gunther Janek), James Earl Jones (Bernard Abbott), Lee Garlington (Dr Elena Rhyzkov)
In 1969, Martin Brice escapes being arrested by the FBI as a hacker because he is away getting pizza but his best friend Cosmo is apprehended. In the present-day, Martin lives under the assumed identity of Martin Bishop and is still on the run, managing a firm that tests hi-tech security systems. He is then threatened with exposure of his real identity by the National Security Agency. They force Martin and his team to agree to steal a hi-tech codebreaker. However, after they conduct the operation, they discover they have been duped and what they have stolen is a device that can break through any computer encryption system in the world. Moreover, Martin discovers that the brains behind the operation is Cosmo who has come seeking revenge against him.
Sneakers was the third directorial film from Phil Alden Robinson. Robinson previously had a hit with the great baseball fantasy Field of Dreams (1989). Sneakers comes almost at 180-degrees remove from Field of Dreams – Field of Dreams was a whimsical Twilight Zone fantasy from the American heartland, Sneakers is a hi-tech suspense thriller rooted in the here and now. Despite this, both are also surprisingly similar films – they look back to the 1960s and the ideals of the Love Generation with considerable nostalgia.
Sneakers was the forerunner of a series of 1990s Techno-Thrillers that readily adapted to the computer age – The Net (1995), Hackers (1995), Mission: Impossible (1996), Antitrust (2001), tv’s Bugs (1995-8) and Level 9 (2000) – a breed of espionage film that refreshingly substituted the shadowy world of electronic surveillance and computer hack-ins for car chases and gunplay. Sneakers still remains the best to emerge so far from this mini-genre. (Screenwriters Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes had previously written WarGames (1983), which is the grandfather of these computer-age thrillers, indeed was the film that introduced the public to the term ‘hacker’).
The shadowiness of this world is neatly spelt out in a scene where Ben Kingsley gives a disturbingly plausible megalomaniac speech about manipulating the public perception of reality through information flow. The film’s science-fiction content lies not so much in its fantastic central device but the scary possibilities that Ben Kingsley outlines of its use – of being able manipulate economies of entire countries and bring about global disaster by erasing all records of personal property.
Phil Alden Robinson does an excellent job creating suspense sequences dependant on technical ingenuity – the problems of breaking into Ben Kingsley’s office involving fake dates to tape voiceprint ID codewords; Robert Redford’s surprisingly suspenseful two inches per second trek across the office to avoid the motion detector; the sequence with the lie detector and global phone trace. At no point does the enjoyment of the suspense ever become overloaded by technical double-talk. Robinson also brings to bear an amazing cast line-up, with the show being stolen by Ben Kingsley in a performance of silky dangerousness.
Sneakers sold itself with the highly amusing by-line: “We’d tell you what it was about – but then we’d have to kill you.” Phil Alden Robinson makes far too few films – his next was the disappointing Tom Clancy adaptation The Sum of All Fears (2002) about nuclear terrorism, followed by The Angriest Man in Brooklyn (2014).