Sometimes you notice an unexpected similarity between two very different works that you happen to consume around the same time; when I re-watched Sneakers recently, I had just finished reading Jeremy Rifkin's The End of Work, a once-controversial book from the mid-'90s concerning inevitable changes in the world's economies as a result of ever-more-efficient automation. (Short summary: most people will lose their jobs, and we have to move beyond the entire notion of jobs ASAP, or huge and enduring economic disaster will ensue.) I'm no economist and I rarely read this sort of thing, but the book was tough to put down in spite of its often encyclopedic feel—largely because I like to think about all the ways in which the world has changed since recent technologies came along. Rifkin only mentions the Internet once, yet his book, remarkably, isn't very dated at all. In much the same way, and for some of the same reasons, 1992's Sneakers isn't as dated as I feared it would prove to be when I re-watched it. I guess we have Wikileaks and Anonymous to thank for that—or maybe they have movies like this to thank for their own conception.
Sneakers concerns a group of mostly-aging hackers, led by Martin (Robert Redford), whose colorful past gets him and his friends embroiled in an elaborate plot involving a quite cool MacGuffin about which I don't want to spoil anything. (Let's just say recent research in quantum computing makes this storyline a lot more plausible than it might have seemed to moviegoers in 1992.) Martin eventually helps his friends prevail against powerful, shadowy adversaries, leading to a cathartic coda with a surprise guest star. I was amazed how much I'd forgotten about Sneakers (it'd been years), and the plot was one of the sources of renewed delight.
One thing I didn't forget is its cool, relaxed style. The characters all get great dialogue and relationship dynamics. The James Horner score prominently features Branford Marsalis, providing an appropriately smooth tone, even if it's got a very Nineties sound. Every scene, even the expository stuff and the hanging-out-in-the-clubhouse stuff, has a breezy, propulsive energy missing from so many similar techie-thrillers (even some made in the ADD-addled present-day). This is the sort of movie where the overall enjoyment is such that occasionally contrived moments don't really bother you. That, or I'm just a sucker for heist plots.
Helping keep the right balance of tension and fun is the amazing cast: Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, David Strathairn, Dan Aykroyd, River Phoenix, Mary McDonnell, Ben Kingsley—and, in supporting roles, Donal Logue, Stephen Tobolowsky, and Timothy Busfield. They all seem to be having genuine fun, an impression confirmed in this retrospective piece from Tobolowsky (don't read that if you haven't seen Sneakers yet!).
Sneakers takes place in a world where the progressive ideals of the 1960s have been marginalized or perverted—our world—and, like Rifkin's The End of Work, it imagines a happy but implausible victory against the forces that did the marginalizing and perverting. This is the attribute I alluded to above that keeps them both still enjoyable and even informative twenty years later, despite their too-upbeat endings: it's fascinating (to me at least) to examine how people perceived technology back then and what they expected it would become. In the case of Sneakers, that examination has a more upbeat flavor, one that engenders enduring fondness.
Star Score: 4 out of 5