Sometimes we look at the things in the world and feel there is nothing to do but something drastic. Such are the problems we face that we feel powerless to do anything about them, which leads to the kind of desperation that coincides with drastic. What such thoughts often engender is a desire for control. If only I had the ability to change a person’s mind, alter this law, or sway the public in that direction, everything would be okay, or so this hypothetical line of musings could go. It is understandable. I would wager that all of us at one point or another have fantasized about having limitless power to remake society in our own image because we have all the answers. While our daydreams may be harmless, they have also fueled some of the most awful events in human history. As you shall see, this is all apropos to today’s film, Sneakers (1992).
Sneakers begins in 1969, a time when many in the United States started clamoring to change the world. That is the intent behind two nascent computer programmers, Cosmo (Jojo Marr) and Martin Brice (Gary Hershberger). They have developed a way of breaking into financial institutions and are wondering what they should do with their unfettered access. It being the times previously mentioned, they talk of draining funds away from corporate and political entities they blame for society’s ills. Martin wonders if they are going to get in trouble before he is sent by Cosmo to get them pizza. Unfortunately, shortly after getting into his car, the police come and arrest Cosmo. Martin notices their arrival and runs. Over twenty years later, he is now going by Martin Bishop (Robert Redford). He is the head of a team of people, mostly ex-convicts, who are hired by companies in order to find problems with their security. You might believe this to be a lucrative trade, though they seem to be struggling to make ends meet. This is when they are approached with an offer that is too good to pass. National Security Agency (NSA) agents Buddy Wallace (Eddie Jones) and Dick Gordon (Timothy Busfield) seek their help. Martin is wary of them, and is particularly not interested in working for the government, but they give the added pressure of a large sum of money and knowing Martin’s true name. The job Martin agrees to involves stealing a “black box” from Dr. Gunter Janek (Donal Logue). The device that Dr. Janek has devised is able to crack all computer codes, giving whoever wields it access to any system in the world. Martin is provided two more motivating factors for doing what he is told is illegal: first, they promise to clear his name; secondly, they want to keep it out of the hands of the Russians. With some reservations, Martin and his team are able to retrieve their target. What changes Martin’s mind is his co-worker and former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer Donald Crease (Sidney Poitier) seeing a newspaper clipping reporting Dr. Janek’s death. It suggests that there is an ongoing cover-up, and Martin is not eager to be a part of it. Hence, he and the rest of his team scatters, but Buddy and Dick eventually find Martin and kidnap him after obtaining the black box. They bring him to an office where he is greeted by Cosmo (Sir Ben Kingsley). Martin had been told that Cosmo died in prison. Instead, Cosmo had made friends with organized crime and is busy building a little empire for himself. In trying to recruit his old friend, Cosmo tells Martin that they can finally remake the world like they previously wanted. Martin refuses because his priorities have changed, even if he is still not keen on the government. Cosmo does not take this refusal well, and uses the device to alter the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) dossier on him to include the alias by which Martin had been going for all these years. Cosmo then has his goons drop Martin in the middle of San Francisco. Why Cosmo did not have Martin killed is beyond me, but this is a common mistake made by evil overlords in films. I digress. Not having anywhere else to turn, Martin has everyone meet at the house of his ex-girlfriend Liz Ogilvy (Mary McDonnell). Being who they are, they are going to plan a heist to retrieve the black box. This proceeds as these things usually do for them, though they find that there is one aspect for which they need Liz’s help. They need her to get access to their target from the lonely and strait-laced Werner Brendes (Stephen Tobolowsky), who works in the building they are casing. She obtains this information by going on a couple dates with him, but in the middle of the heist being pulled he discovers her true identity. Werner brings Liz to the building that is a front for Cosmo’s operation at the exact moment that Martin is hoping to make his escape. This eventually forces them to improvise, with Cosmo and Martin coming face-to-face on the roof as Martin is about to get away. To do so, Martin hands Cosmo a fake version of the black box. The people he is not able to evade, though, are the real NSA. When they return to their office, they find NSA Agent Bernard Abbott (James Earl Jones) waiting for them. While they are not about to be arrested, each one of Martin’s team has a set of demands they expect to be met before handing over the device. An exasperated Agent Abbott agrees to each one before leaving, and that is essentially the conclusion.
As noted in the previous paragraph, Sneakers makes one of the classic cinematic evil overlord mistakes of letting the protagonist live when there is ample opportunity to end a threat. Perhaps this is some latent idealism on Cosmo’s part, or sentiment for their friendship? What the film does a good job of showing, though, is just how powerful of a tool would be such a thing as this black box. To repeat what I was relating in the introduction, the desire to do such things as this device could afford its user is problematic. At the most basic level, there is no human being capable of seeing society from the kind of God level needed to address every ill. This is, by definition, impossible, and you do not necessarily need faith in order to understand this concept. We can only be ourselves, and many of us have enough trouble handling that responsibility let alone those of others. This is why belief in God is so crucial. Putting your faith in something bigger than oneself is important. It is good for the soul, no matter how you want to construct it. Problems occur when you place that kind of trust in man-made institutions like governments. The film supports this idea. The step it misses is, if you cannot give yourself over to governments, who can you trust? I place mine in God who is love, and love never fails.
I enjoyed Sneakers more than I thought I would. A big reason for this is the great cast. I did not get a chance to mention them all, but it includes some other recognizable faces and names. This, along with some clever dialog and script writing, makes for a good viewing experience. I recommend this one.