Friday, February 21, 2014

Sneakers - 1992

There are two stories to tell here. The first is personal - I saw "Sneakers" for the first time at the end of November, 1992, with my friend Tristan Dalley, at a movie theater that showed films cheap near the very end of their time in theaters. I know this because of two reasons. First, I'd just gotten my driver's license, so Tristan and I were going out to a movie to celebrate. Second, we went into the movie theater with clouds overhead and came out a few hours later to a few inches of snow on the ground. That's right, the day I got my driver's license and I luck into a goddamn blizzard. We got home fine - it was Nebraska and I'd prepared for the eventuality of driving on snow. I just hadn't expected to run into it on my first day driving without supervision.

The second story is that "Sneakers" is absolutely one of my favorite films of all time, and is more relevant now than it was when it was made, which is saying something for a film about technology. It's a story about encryption, ethics, the role of computers in our lives, the nature of warfare in the modern age, crime, punishment, history and a whole lot more. It's a story about, as described in the film, guys who are " [hired] to break into people's places to make sure nobody can break into their places."

I love films about thieves, make no mistake about it, and "Sneakers" definitely has a heist vibe to it for the majority of its runtime. Breaking into banks, labs, companies... you get to see a lot of the odd work that is done by both sides, the white hats (the good guys) and the black hats (the bad guys). You get to see how people can find out things about your identity, your habits, your weaknesses and how all of that can be used against you. It's a film that rewards careful viewing, and pays very close attention to the details. Closer than you may even be expecting.

If you take a look at that poster, you'll also see it has one hell of a cast - Robert Redford, Dan Aykroyd, Ben Kingsley, Mary McDonnell, Sidney Poitier, David Strathairn and River Phoenix, in one of his last roles. Seriously, think of the sheer wattage of star power there. Not enough? Well, keep in mind the movie was written and directed by Phil Alden Robinson, who is best known for directing "Field Of Dreams." There's also a couple of other well known actors who make cameos, but I don't want to give away all of the surprises.

"Sneakers" is also, above all else, a comedy. This is a film where Dan Aykroyd says "We turn ourselves in now, they'll give us twenty years in the electric chair!" The writing is fun, the characters are distinct and well-developed and everyone has clear motivations, but most of all, the actors have a sense of genuine camaraderie, like a group that's been working together for years. There's a comfortableness there that's important. Martin Bishop (Redford) and his gang of misfits feel like they're (mostly) comfortable with each other, their habits, their foibles and shortcomings. They certainly don't know everything about each other, but they know enough, and they trust one another. And it's drawn from a real world kind of people - the people who've been poking and prodding at the systems of the world for years.

Like I said before, the film's only gotten better over the years. The idea of the government spying on us plays more truthfully now that we actually know they're doing it. And the idea of so much riding on encryption, well, we as an audience have a better understanding of what it actually is. Sure, some of the actual tech is way out of date - using a phone line to call up a computer? What is this, 1992? Oh, wait... But it's easy to look past those things and focus on the easy charms of the actors and the fun attitude of the writing.

It's also worth noting that the film was one of my earliest recollections of seeing San Francisco on film, and there's a bit of geography in the film that comes into play, which has always helped me remember the major bridges in the area, and little things that differentiate them. I didn't know it at the time, but the Bay Area would later become my home, and I'll always remember seeing Redford's character dumped at Hyde and Lombard.

Even the music is amazing, with a jazzy, slinky score that's apropos for the subject matter. You'll love it. Trust me on this one.

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