In the fall of 1992, the writers of WarGames, the director of Field of Dreams, and an incredible ensemble cast created an irresistible combination of suspense, adventure, and comedy. Sneakers tells the story of Martin Bishop, who, as a student in the late ‘60s, dabbled in proto-hacking and political prankery just enough to attract the attention of the police, which triggered him to go underground to avoid capture. To make a living Bishop assembles an unlikely team of highly skilled individuals with similar histories with law enforcement to help him test security systems of Bay Area businesses and organizations. Bishop and his team start working for a mysterious new client who throws them into the middle of a conspiracy to possess a technology that threatens to destroy the ability to keep any information secret.
Director Phil Alden Robinson guides the extraordinary cast through an expertly paced adventure based on Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes’ sharp script, which is enriched with details drawn from the worlds of information technology, hacking, and espionage. Although Lasker and Parkes mined very similar territory in 1983 with their novel Cold War tale WarGames, they create a very prescient depiction of the new geopolitical realities forming after the Cold War. Two movie stars from the ‘60s and ‘70s - Robert Redford and Sidney Poitier - anchor the cast with nuanced portrayals of aging men devoted to a hazardous but rewarding line of work. Redford delivers his most appealing and relaxed mid-to-late career work as Martin Bishop, a man haunted as much by his past as by his potential. In the role of retired CIA operative Donald Crease, Poitier supplies a sobering intensity and a meticulous sense of awareness as the risk level escalates for Bishop and his colleagues. Dan Aykroyd and River Phoenix, who both racked up individual box office successes in the years leading up to this movie, contribute their notable talents to a movie that demands a company of great actors with shared chemistry. The role of Mother, a conspiracy theory-obsessed burglar, remains the most appealing and least broadly comic role of Aykroyd’s career. Phoenix brings a highly internal and sweetly awkward nature to Carl, the nineteen year-old computer prodigy and newest member of Bishop’s team. Mary McDonnell and David Strathairn, who established their careers working frequently with director John Sayles, stretch the cast outside of conventional Hollywood norms of the time with skills honed in smaller, independent films. McDonnell, tasked with the unfortunate responsibility of playing the movie’s lone principal female character Liz, injects an irreverent, brainy independence into what could have been a two-dimensional part. Strathairn’s portrayal of Whistler ranks as one of the most accurate, well-rounded, and compassionate on-screen representations of a person with a disability by an able-bodied person. Two great actors known for their range and gravitas, James Earl Jones and Ben Kingsley, round out the cast with crucial supporting roles that heighten the sense of danger, but still allow both of them to get in on the fun everyone else is having.
With Sneakers, the filmmakers create a world in which Bishop and his team have believable pasts while a streak of playful energy balances the deadly consequences at stake. Sure, this movie is susceptible to the kind of inconsistencies common to many Hollywood films, but Sneakers feels far more grounded than most espionage adventure films of the last twenty-five years. Also, it’s hard not to love a film that contains both a game of Scrabble that is pivotal to the plot and a brief, joyful dance sequence that develops the characters!
- John Parsell