Skip to main content

There’s a war out there, old friend. A world war. And it’s not about who’s got the most bullets. It’s about who controls the information.

Sneakers
(1992)

(SPOILERS) I hadn’t seen Sneakers since its original cinema release, when I pegged it as a likeable but ultimately rather too amiable conspiracy yarn. I mean to say, conspiracy yarns can be a lot of things – straight thrillers, satires, outright comedies – but you don’t usually associate them with amiability. After reading a recent Birth Movies Death piece singing its praises, I thought it might be time to give the picture another look, to see if I’d confess to a glowing reappraisal. Unfortunately, no. It’s the same rather amiable, well-made-but-slight piece.


Director Phil Alden Robinson was coming off the high of surprise sleeper hit Field of Dreams, and his co-writers Lawrence Lasker and Walter F Parkes had WarGames on their résumés, so you wouldn’t be misplaced to expect good things here. But the screenplay, concerning a group of A-Team/Mission: Impossible security experts paid to break into corporations to test their systems, who are set on the trail of a super-powerful piece of hardware (a black box that can instantly hack any computer system), never manages to step up the tension, paranoia or sense of urgency sufficiently; it’s certainly in no danger of troubling lead Robert Redford’s greatest hits in the genre (Three Days of the Condor, All the President’s Men). There are incidents where the pace accelerates, but for much of the time Sneakers is closer to a “caper”, a difficult sub-genre, the likes of which have more recently been explored to mixed results (The Brothers Bloom, Ocean’s 12, Duplicity).


Marty Bishop: I went out for pizza. Then I went to Canada. I was lucky. He wasn’t.

When Marty Bishop (Redford) picks up his fee for a recent job, he explains his profession and adds “It’s a living”. “Not a very good one” replies the teller, as if she has anything to be proud of. For all that the movie offers some sharp lines (most of them courtesy of Dan Aykroyd’s conspiracy-geek Mother) it also nurses sloppy ones of that ilk. The exchange is designed to indicate that Marty’s ideals have been sacrificed, but the superfluous context kills it. Marty, you see, still harbours guilt over the arrest and imprisonment of his friend Cosmo, back in the ‘60s, when both were budding counter-culture reactionaries, hacking in aid of the revolution.


Cosmo: Power to the people, Marty.

But the ‘60s ideal here is rigorously counter culture-lite, in a Big Chill way that makes it all too easy to be at peace with forsaking the opportunities the era held to change the world, most redolently in identifying the Republicans as the bad guys rather than the system as a whole, irrespective of nominal party lines (Marty and Cosmo hijack Republican funds, making a donation to the Black Panthers, while Nixon’s personal checking account is used to fund the National Association to Legalise Marijuana). The picture’s final scene has a news report announcing the Republican National Committee’s bankruptcy, suggesting Marty has returned to his youthful instincts, but in a watered-down movie, it’s a watered-down coda. As he says to Cosmo (Ben Kingsley), “It wasn’t a journey, Cos. It was a prank”, and we’re not sure he doesn’t mean it. The most notable part of the 1969 introductory scene is actually that Mike from Twin Peaks (Gary Hershberger) is playing the young Marty.


Cosmo: The world isn’t run by weapons any more, or energy or money. It’s run by little ones and zeroes, by data. It’s all just electrons… There’s a war out there, old friend. A world war. And it’s not about who’s got the most bullets. It’s about who controls the information What we see and hear. How we work and what we think. It’s all about the information!

Sneakers provides fairly prescient warnings of the way things are (or should that be that we’ve caught up with becoming aware of the way things were, have been and will continue to be?) While the picture is frequently far too rotund and pleased with itself for its own good, it gets a rod up the backside whenever Kingsley assumes centre stage, and his sermon on the way the world works, on how data is king and information is everything, is particularly on point. But do we only think that’s a current development because we’re being told to think it is, by the same manipulators of news who were happy to let things fly when they had total control of the ways and means by which we received information? It’s only when those channels are disrupted that it becomes necessary to intervene and announce redirections in respect of the dangers of “fake news”.


Cosmo: The world changed on us, Marty. Without our help… When I was in prison, I learnt that everything in this world, including money, operates not on reality, but on the perception of reality.

The perception of reality is the key: if enough people can be convinced something is the case, it doesn’t matter whether or not it is the case. A common means of getting, for example, a handy war up and running. A counter ploy, such as now, would be to confuse people over the actual version of events to such an extent they become inured to the news itself. How can you trust any of it? 


When it comes to such overarching, all-consuming control, and the potential to obstruct it, Sneakers might be tellingly revealing of its hero’s (and lead actor’s) tentative relationship to the ideals he once professed:

Cosmo: I might even be able to crash the whole damn system. Destroy all records ownership. Think of it, Marty: no more rich people, no more poor people, everybody the same. Isn’t that what we said we always wanted?
Marty: Cos, you haven’t gone crazy on me, have you?

After all, only a crazy person would want to bring capitalism to its knees, wouldn’t they? And only an ex-radical would be invested ensuring this didn’t happen, while consoling himself that he is just radical enough to vote Democrat. His colleagues, meanwhile, are naturally children of the dollar (“I’m in it for the money. I don’t care if I go to jail”).


Marty: The only thing it would be really good for, is spying on Americans.

The movie almost has an ace up its sleeve when it arrives at the conclusion that the NSA wants the box to eavesdrop on its own population, since the Russians have different codes (the picture, post-Glasnost, is at pains to point out the thawing of superpower relationships and how it’s a whole new world as a result, such that the Russian can’t be trusted not to go to FBI with information; thank goodness there isn’t that problem now). Yes, Sneakers nurses the notion that East v West isn’t all a great charade, and also limits its foresight to merely the surveillance of competing agencies (the CIA, FBI) and the Whitehouse, the potential for spying on every single American being but a mere twinkle in the Internet’s eye at the time.


Whistler: I want peace on Earth and goodwill to all men.
Bernard Abbott: We are the United States government! We don’t do that sort of thing.

But this is a picture with a nice NSA, headed up by nice Mr Earl Jones indulging the team’s list of demands (“Tahiti is not in Europe”), where a cute NSA chick is instantly enough to overcome one’s resistance to the corrupt system (provided River Phoenix’s Carl gets her phone number), where the ex-CIA guy (Sidney Poitier’s Donald Crease) didn’t leave the agency out of disillusionment but over issues with his temper. The corrupt, devious NSA of the opening acts is a deception, and so Marty’s slur on them (“You know, I could have joined the NSA. Then they found my parents were married”) is revealed as unwarranted. 


Marty: So what’s the codebreaker?
Whistler: No, it’s THE codebreaker.

The picture ambles along, giving the impression that it’s smart, but not that smart, offering rudimentary ploys (Setec Astronomy anagram revealing an anagram of “Too many secrets”, Marty amazingly being able to recall distinct sounds on his journey in the boot of a car, such that David Strathairn’s Whistler can get a fix on where he was taken). However, it does occasionally come together nicely. 


The scene of activating the black box can in no way equal the dark thrill of Matthew Broderick initiating the countdown to thermo-nuclear war in WarGames, but it is nevertheless effectively realised (“Anybody want to shut down the Federal Reserve?”, asks Whistler, of the National Power Grid, “Anybody want to blackout New England?”, and then the air traffic control system). As MacGuffins go, it’s pretty much the dream ticket (“There isn’t a government on this planet that wouldn’t kill us all for that thing”), but Robinson fails to milk it for maximum suspense, which is a pity.


And the sequence in which Liz must go on a date with Werner Brandes (a masterfully improvising Stephen Tobolowsky: “Shall I phone you, or nudge you?” he asks of the prospect of a second date, and later, cooking at his flat, “I’ll be with you, just as soon as I’m finished pounding these breasts”) is a structurally pleasing marriage of comedy and tension as she attempts to record Werner saying the various necessary words to activate his voice recognition codes and key card (in order to break into Cosmo’s offices). Later, there’s a crowd-pleasing scene in which blind Whistler comes to the rescue, driving a van via Marty’s directions like a less fatuous version of See No Evil Hear No Evil.


Marty: Where did you get 50 bucks?
Carl: I took it from Mother’s wallet.
Marty: Good.

The ensemble work well together, with Phoenix picking up a stress-free cheque in his pre-penultimate (completed) movie and Redford resting confidently on his easy charm (he’s been working a lot as an actor recently, but at the time he was making few movies, and his star appeared to be on the decline, as Havana had evidenced). 


The most consistently enjoyable part of Sneakers comes from the sparring between Poitier and Aykroyd, though, the former infuriated by the latter’s endless torrent of conspiracy theories, ranging from HAARP-esque control of the environment (“Now what are you saying? The CIA caused the Managua earthquake?”) to fake news, to alien contact: “It’s part of the same system that NASA used with the faked Apollo moon landings. Yeah, the astronauts broadcast around the world from a sound stage at Norton Airforce Base in San Fernando in California. So, if it worked for them, it shouldn’t give us any problem”. And:

Mother: But the key meeting took place in July 1958 when the air force brought a space visitor to the White House for an interview with President Eisenhower. And he said, hey, look, give us your technology, we’ll give you all the cow lips you want.
Donald: Honey, don’t listen to this man, He’s certifiable.
Mother: Your husband knows about cattle mutilations. He’s ex-CIA.



Apparently, NBC is developing TV series based on Sneakers. Which might be a good idea, if it tries to be nothing like the movie. On the other hand, it might find itself struggling to be relevant unless its willing to fly ahead of the curve (and for NBC, that’s unlikely). The film certainly has that winning “all about family” thing going for it (“I have a new group of gifted children now, and I like the fact that they’re under 30” says Liz to Marty at one point). Sneakers’ problem is that it’s too damned relaxed, to damn comfy with itself. A G-rated movie with swearing added to make it not seem like a kid’s picture. Which says it all. It’s too nice.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Maybe he had one too many peanut butter and fried banana sandwiches.

3000 Miles to Graceland (2001) (SPOILERS) The kind of movie that makes your average Tarantino knockoff look classy, 3000 Miles to Graceland is both aggressively unpleasant and acutely absent any virtues, either as a script or a stylistic exercise. The most baffling thing about it is how it attracted Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell, particularly since both ought to have been extra choosy at this point, having toplined expensive bombs in the previous half decade that made them significantly less bankable names. And if you’re wondering how this managed to cost the $62m reported on Wiki, it didn’t; Franchise Pictures, one of the backers, was in the business of fraudulently inflating budgets .

We’re looking into a possible pattern of nationwide anti-Catholic hate crimes.

Vampires aka John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter limps less-than-boldly onward, his desiccated cadaver no longer attentive to the filmic basics of quality, taste, discernment, rhyme or reason. Apparently, he made his pre-penultimate picture to see if his enthusiasm for the process truly had drained away, and he only went and discovered he really enjoyed himself. It doesn’t show. Vampires is as flat, lifeless, shoddily shot, framed and edited as the majority of his ’90s output, only with a repellent veneer of macho bombast spread on top to boot.

I dreamed about a guy in a dirty red and green sweater.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) (SPOILERS) I first saw A Nightmare on Elm Street a little under a decade after its release, and I was distinctly underwhelmed five or so sequels and all the hype. Not that it didn’t have its moments, but there was an “It’ll do” quality that reflects most of the Wes Craven movies I’ve seen. Aside from the postmodern tease of A New Nightmare – like Last Action Hero , unfairly maligned – I’d never bothered with the rest of the series, in part because I’m just not that big a horror buff, but also because the rule that the first is usually the best in any series, irrespective of genre, tends to hold out more often than not. So now I’m finally getting round to them, and it seemed only fair to start by giving Freddy’s first another shot. My initial reaction holds true.

I must remind you that the scanning experience is usually a painful one.

Scanners (1981) (SPOILERS) David Cronenberg has made a career – albeit, he may have “matured” a little over the past few decades, so it is now somewhat less foregrounded – from sticking up for the less edifying notions of evolution and modern scientific thought. The idea that regress is, in fact, a form of progress, and unpropitious developments are less dead ends than a means to a state or states as yet unappreciated. He began this path with some squeam-worthy body horrors, before genre hopping to more explicit science fiction with Scanners , and with it, greater critical acclaim and a wider audience. And it remains a good movie, even as it suffers from an unprepossessing lead and rather fumbles the last furlong, cutting to the chase when a more measured, considered approach would have paid dividends.

You seem particularly triggered right now. Can you tell me what happened?

Trailers The Matrix Resurrections   The Matrix A woke n ? If nothing else, the arrival of The Matrix Resurrections trailer has yielded much retrospective back and forth on the extent to which the original trilogy shat the bed. That probably isn’t its most significant legacy, of course, in terms of a series that has informed, subconsciously or otherwise, intentionally or otherwise, much of the way in which twenty-first century conspiracy theory has been framed and discussed. It is however, uncontested that a first movie that was officially the “best thing ever”, that aesthetically and stylistically reinvigorated mainstream blockbuster cinema in a manner unseen again until Fury Road , squandered all that good will with astonishing speed by the time 2003 was over.

We got two honkies out there dressed like Hassidic diamond merchants.

The Blues Brothers (1980) (SPOILERS) I had limited awareness of John Belushi’s immense mythos before  The Blues Brothers arrived on retail video in the UK (so 1991?) My familiarity with SNL performers really began with Ghostbusters ’ release, which meant picking up the trail of Jake and Elwood was very much a retrospective deal. I knew Animal House , knew Belushi’s impact there, knew 1941 (the Jaws parody was the best bit), knew Wired was a biopic better avoided. But the minor renaissance he, and they, underwent in the UK in the early ’90s seemed to have been initiated by Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers, of all things; Everybody Needs Somebody was part of their That Sounds Good to Me medley, the first of their hits not to make No.1, and Everybody ’s subsequent single release then just missed the Top Ten. Perhaps it was this that hastened CIC/Universal to putting the comedy out on video. Had the movie done the rounds on UK TV in the 80s? If so, it managed to pass me by. Even bef

Remember. Decision. Consequence.

Day Break (2006) (SPOILERS) Day Break is the rare series that was lucky to get cancelled. And not in a mercy-killing way. It got to tell its story. Sure, apparently there were other stories. Other days to break. But would it have justified going there? Or would it have proved tantalising/reticent about the elusive reason its protagonist has to keep stirring and repeating? You bet it would. Offering occasional crumbs, and then, when it finally comes time to wrap things up, giving an explanation that satisfies no one/is a cop out/offers a hint at some nebulous existential mission better left to the viewer to conjure up on their own. Best that it didn’t even try to go there.

Maybe I’m a heel who hates guys who hate heels.

Crimewave (1985) (SPOILERS) A movie’s makers’ disowning it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s nothing of worth therein, just that they don’t find anything of worth in it. Or the whole process of making it too painful to contemplate. Sam Raimi’s had a few of those, experiencing traumas with Darkman a few years after Crimewave . But I, blissfully unaware of such issues, was bowled over by it when I caught it a few years after its release (I’d hazard it was BBC2’s American Wave 2 season in 1988). This was my first Sam Raimi movie, and I was instantly a fan of whoever it was managed to translate the energy and visual acumen of a cartoon to the realm of live action. The picture is not without its problems – and at least some of them directly correspond to why it’s so rueful for Raimi – but that initial flair I recognised still lifts it.

I admit it. I live in a highly excited state of overstimulation.

Videodrome (1983) (SPOILERS) I’m one of those who thinks Cronenberg’s version of Total Recall would have been much more satisfying than the one we got (which is pretty good, but flawed; I’m referring to the Arnie movie, of course, not the Farrell). The counter is that Videodrome makes a Cronenberg Philip K Dick adaptation largely redundant. It makes his later Existenz largely redundant too. Videodrome remains a strikingly potent achievement, taking the directors thematic obsessions to the next level, one as fixated on warping the mind as the body. Like many Cronenbergs, it isn’t quite there, but it exerts a hold on the viewer not dissimilar to the one slowly entwining its protagonist Max Renn (James Woods).

White nights getting to you?

Insomnia (2002) (SPOILERS) I’ve never been mad keen on Insomnia . It’s well made, well-acted, the screenplay is solid and it fits in neatly with Christopher Nolan’s abiding thematic interests, but it’s… There’s something entirely adequateabout it. It isn’t pushing any kind of envelope. It’s happy to be the genre-bound crime study it is and nothing more, something emphasised by Pacino’s umpteenth turn as an under-pressure cop.