Millennial Malaise 02: Sneakers

In which information will control the world

In Chuck Klosterman’s book But What if We’re Wrong? he recounts a bit of reading from a 1980 edition of the Book of Predictions. In it he’s confronted with the speculations of futurists and scientists that can’t imagine a world where America and the Soviet Union aren’t always at each other’s throats.”As far as I can tell,” writes Klosterman, “no one in the Book of Predictions assumed the friction between the US and Russia could be resolved without the detonation of nuclear bombs.”

A huge swath of the 20th century was so defined by the conflict between the US and USSR that it’s easy to sympathize with the thinkers of the time. When you spend your whole life under the threat of nuclear annihilation from two forces caught in a supposed struggle for the soul of the world, it’s easy to imagine the difficulty to conceptualize a reality outside of that. And that shock to the course of history and culture when the Soviet Union dissolved cannot be overstated, for a brief period it looked like the past had been sorted, wars fought and resolved, and that the arc of the universe would follow a course set by liberal democracies. Of course this mindset is just as naive as assuming the Cold War would continue forever, and from our modern perch seems almost laughable.

Sneakers, a breezy 1992 heist film starring Robert Redford and directed by Phil Alden Robinson, completely captures the morass of a post Cold War world without wallowing in it. The film also recognizes that the end of the Cold War isn’t the only factor that will radically reshape the world. New technology will have just as large an impact on domestic or international politics, and the powers of the future will hold the keys to not just money or political leverage, but the entire sphere of information as well. The fact that the movie can hold these astute thematic observations while never losing its light hearted tone is an elegant achievement in mainstream blockbuster filmmaking.

The plot of the film follows Martin Brice (Redford) as an ex-hacker who has scrabbled together a living by forming a white hat heist crew that breaks into banks and other secure locations to test their security. He’s joined by a myriad of ex-cons and misfits including: former CIA agent Donald (Sydney Poitier), conspiracy theorist and technician Mother (Dan Akroyd), blind computer whiz Whistler (David Strathairn), and pretty boy Carl (River Phoenix). One day a couple of NSA agents drop in to have Brice’s crew steal a mysterious box from a crazed mathematician. Once the group gets the box they realize that it has the potential to decrypt all computer information and are thrown into a greater conspiracy involving Martin’s former partner in crime Cosmo (Ben Kingsley).

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The framework of the story here is fairly standard heist film stuff. Morally murky crew are asked to steal a thing, thing gets stolen from them, then they have to steal it back with an elaborate plan involving blueprints, motion detectors, and disguises. But what elevates the material is the constant undercurrent of questioning the new status quo after the end of the Cold War, and who we can trust when we no longer have a distinct line between us and them.

This comes frequently with regards to the treatment of the NSA, domestic surveillance, and foreign espionage. In the film the NSA wants the decrypting box so they can spy on the citizenry and high ranks of the US government without permission. They reason that since they don’t have to directly contend with Russia anymore it’s more vital to keep an eye on the people at home. What’s funny is how the movie treats this fact as a given, without an external force to turn against our powerful institutions will turn against the people it is supposedly protecting. I don’t think the movie was actually counting on this idea becoming a more than accepted part of reality in the 21st century.

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In the international affairs bucket it points how the dissolution of traditional enemies has created new power vacuums for those with competing interests. You can’t easily divine the sides any more because the board has been completely cleared and the pieces reshuffled. At one point Martin contacts a former Russian spy turned “cultural attache” Gregor about the possibility of his NSA contacts being compromised. Gregor pulls out a book of possible US citizens he could have flipped into assets during the Cold War. As Martin identifies his man Gregor notes that he can longer trust these people and former contacts. Russians can now go to the FBI and vice-versa to achieve their own goals outside the binary East/West conflict of the previous decades.

These shifting moral grounds allow for new interests to grow in the place of old structures, and here is where the film hits on its most prescient insight. About halfway through the story it’s revealed that Martin’s former criminal buddy, Cosmo, commissioned his crew to steal the decryptor box and now wants to use it for his own ends. By his consideration with the conclusion of the Cold War it’s time for the world to truly start over, and he will be the one to do it. He then gives a speech that basically serves as the template for almost all of the future projects involving hackers and anarchists. Fight Club, the V for Vendetta movie, Mr. Robot, and even the whole anonymous movement are caught in a few lines of dialog.


Cosmo proposes to wipe the slate clean. Destroying all records of credit and making all private information public. If the close of Cold War opened up the new chapter in history than we need to cement this turning of the page by fully wrecking the vestiges of structure that exist. Cosmo knows that he could vanish the current concept of money, cripple the government, and hand over control to anybody. In the oncoming world the key to power will not be what we assumed in the past, but instead the ability to access any information at any point in time. As Cosmo notes, “the world isn’t run by weapons anymore, or energy, or money, it’s run by little ones zeros.” The future won’t be controlled by the largest arsenal but instead by, “who controls the information.”

Unlike most of the grand villain monologues of other contemporary work, Cosmo has been proven almost entirely correct in his assumptions with merely a few hiccups. One is that physical force is still important, and the other is that it won’t be just the governments of the world that vie for power and control, but private tech firms that make their business knowing and selling your information. If the last ten years have proven anything it’s that tech companies with unfettered access to information has lead to a precipitous decline in the world at large. The fact that Facebook has the power to undermine elections and propagate genocide is a tragedy that no film of the era could predict, even if something like Sneakers gets closer than most.

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But all this heavy stuff is mostly an undercurrent in the film, a bit of thematic afterburner to keep the plot and characters rolling. In fact Sneakers plays a lot like a modern update of of Redford’s classic genre tweakers from earlier in his career like Butch Cassidy, The Candidate, and The Sting. Redford charms his way through multiple sticky situations, bounces witty repartees with his other cast members, and whips out the craggy smile to warm the audience’s hearts. Robinson directs the whole thing with a steady, but stylish, hand making the machinations of the crew’s various adventures clear and clever. It also inhabits a classic 90s aesthetic zone that is always fun to watch. The rundown world of the 80s suddenly bumped up with blearing solid colors and oncoming outre fashions. The whole thing just runs so smooth, and the light comedic tone never clashing with the headier ideas it touches on.

In some ways Sneakers serves as the model of a Hollywood film made in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union. Searching for the new enemies to fight, turning inward and questioning our own government’s motives moving forward, and grappling with the new tech that will completely inverse traditional structures of power. It exists before the arrogance of “The End of History” postulations, but still has slightly utopian visions of the future. The charming good guys will succeed, the master criminal will be left high and dry, and the government will be prevented from further abuse. At the end of the movie the dream of 90s is still alive despite the seeds of collapse being sown in the fertile ground of the time.

Odds and Ends:

  • For the time Sneakers features a fairly realistic look at hacking. It’s not just people slamming code on computers, but also tampering with phone lines, messing with surveillance, and just interacting face-to-face with people and lying.
  • It does, however, indulge in some more fanciful stuff like voice activated doorways and hyper stylized villain lairs, but hey it works here.
  • The cast here is kind of an amazing collection of new and old talent, and while it mostly becomes a Redford show by the end, it’s great to see this odd group of stars, comedians, and character actors play off each other.
  • I am shocked this hasn’t been remade into a TV show at this point. The premise is perfect and the thematic material a excellent match for our current era.

Next week: Hack the planet with 1995’s Hackers.