Sneakers

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Setec Astronomy? Too Many Secrets

A 1992 film starring Robert Redford and an All-Star Cast. Sneakers is a complex thriller about a team of slightly shady security experts who find themselves in a conspiracy about cryptography, espionage, secrets, and betrayal.

Martin Brice (Robert Redford) and his best friend Cosmo (Ben Kingsley) spent their youth hacking into computer systems and 'sharing the wealth': ten thousand dollars here, thirty there, and all sent to various freedom-loving (and somewhat anarchistic) agencies. Despite their precautions, the Feds catch onto Martin and Cosmo; Cosmo is arrested and goes to prison, while Martin -- who was out buying pizza for the hungry hackers -- flees to Canada, changes his name, and disappears.

Twenty-three years later, Martin Bishop is the team lead for the Sneakers, a team of security analysts who expose the weaknesses in the security systems of banks, corporations, and anybody else who'll cut them a cheque. This very disfunctional crew consists of:

  • Irwin "Whistler" Emery (David Strathairn), a blind soundman with perfect pitch.
  • Darryl "Mother" Roskow (Dan Aykroyd), a conspiracy nut and phone phreaker par excellance.
  • Donald Crease (Sidney Poitier), ex-CIA, terminated because of his quick temper.
  • Karl Arborgast (River Phoenix), a college delinquent and gadget-master.
  • And Martin Bishop himself, ringleader and fugitive.

Then there's Liz (Mary McDonnell), Bishop's ex-girlfriend. She's fond of "the boys", but wants no part of their crazy schemes.

Unfortunately for all of them, Martin's latest assignment soon gets them entangled in a situation that quickly makes them targets for every major organization in the world, and could lead to the downfall of civilization...


Tropes used in Sneakers include:

Cosmo: Pain? Try aspirin.
[...and after things don't go well...]
Cosmo: Pain? Try prison.

Bishop: It worked.

  • Cyberpunk: This film is very, very Cyberpunk, just without the Chrome.
  • Dangerously Genre Savvy: Cosmo is this, decidedly.
    • Although he does falter in his final scene by not looking inside of the casing Bishop gives him before letting him escape.
  • Dating Service Disaster: Invoked Trope. The protagonists hack a matchmaking service to set up a blind date between Liz and one of SETEC's employees in order to steal his identity. The results are predictably disastrous, and in fact cause Cosmo to figure out that it's a setup.
  • Disability Superpower: Whistler, who's blind and has incredibly sharp hearing.
    • For what it's worth, the character of Whistler is based largely on real-life blind phone phreak and hacker Joe "Joybubbles" Engressia, who did have hearing that good.
  • Double Caper: The entire plot takes this form.
  • Dramatic Gun Cock
  • Earpiece Conversation: Marty's conversation with Dr. Rhyzkov, as prompted by everyone else.

Whistler (over headset): And give him head whenever he wants.
Bishop (to distraught mistress): And give he...help, whenever he wants. Be a...beacon to him.

Carl: I'd like to have a deep relationship with a beautiful woman who melts from the very first time our eyes meet.
Bishop: You're not getting paid that much, Carl.
Carl: Well, you know, someone like Liz.
Bishop: Definitely not getting paid that much.

  • Hollywood Encryption: Averted hard. The description of how cryptology works is dead-on accurate -- Len Adelman, cocreator of RSA (public-key) encryption, consulted on the movie.
  • Hollywood Hacking: Also averted pretty thoroughly. The Sneakers' normal job is a genuine tiger team, and their methods of hacking -- both the computers and the social engineering -- are accurate. Certain other things portrayed in the film, like call tracing, are less so.
    • One small issue--a box that lets you easily factor big numbers will allow you to read everyone's mail, but it will not necessarily allow you to hack into their computers unless they're using public-key authentication, which not everyone is. The sequence in which Cosmo threatens to modify known criminal databases to link Bishop's name with his past might not be accurate.
    • A larger issue is the claim that 'the box' would be useless on Russian cryptographic systems and work only on American ones, therefore whoever commissioned its invention would only want to spy on Americans. In reality, math is math regardless of which nation is using it.
  • Hostage for Macguffin: Cosmo demands the box in return for Liz.
  • I Know You Know I Know
  • Insult Backfire: Delivered indirectly by the Big Bad, but with the insultee present.

Cosmo: I'm sorry if he hurt you. I'm afraid Wallace doesn't like you very much.
Martin Bishop: You oughta have that guy checked for rabies.
Cosmo: Rabies occurs only in warm-blooded animals.

  • Involuntary Charity Donation: In his younger days Martin gave $25,000 of the Republican Party to the Black Panthers. Richard Nixon gave to the National Association to Legalize Marijuana. At the end of the film the Republican National Committee is missing all their money and Amnesty International, Greenpeace and the United Negro College Fund report record anonymous donations.
  • I Was Never Here: "What's really important is that none of this ever happened. This box doesn't exist."
  • Janitor Impersonation Infiltration: Karl dresses as a gardener to get inside the Playtronics building by pretending to need to use their bathroom.
  • Just Like Robin Hood
  • Kwyjibo: Martin attempts to play "scrunchy".
    • Hilarious in Hindsight: It's listed as a legal word in the Official Scrabble Dictionary now (definition: an elastic hair tie).
  • Lie Detector: Mother's voice stress analyzer.
  • Mission Control: Martin and Carl tend to go in the field, while Crease, Whistler, and Mother play peanut gallery.
  • Mundane Wish: A non-magical version appears after the team is negotiating with the NSA for the box.

Carl: "I just want her telephone number."

  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Martin and Cosmo appear to be quite heavily inspired by Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, respectively.
  • No Guy Wants an Amazon -- Inverted. Upon being offered anything they want in exchange for covering up the NSA's role in this affair, Karl asks for the phone number of the hot NSA chick holding him at gunpoint. She's so flattered she actually agrees.
  • No Indoor Voice: Bernard Abbot, brought to you by James Earl Jones.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: Gregor. Not all the time, mercifully, but there are brief moments when it's audible.
  • Open Says Me: A numeric keypad doorlock is defeated by kicking the door open.
  • Open Sesame: "Hi. My name is Werner Brandes. My voice is my passport. Verify me."
  • Phone Trace Race
  • Pistol-Whipping: Wallace to Bishop with a pistol (x2), Bishop to Wallace with a pistol, Crease to 2 Mooks with a shotgun.
  • Playful Hacker: The entire team
    • That being said, it should be pointed out that this is one of the few films to really catch the feel of actual hackery... namely in that computer wizardry is only part of the job; there's a significant social engineering aspect that isn't depicted nearly as adeptly in most hacker representations in cinema. Needless to say that this is a favorite of many hackers and geeks of various stripes because it gets almost everything right.
  • Politically-Incorrect Villain
  • Precision F-Strike / Avoid the Dreaded G Rating: The movie has no sex whatsoever, barely any on-screen violence, and no blood. The producers were concerned that a G rating would make people think it was a kids movie. So Bishop says the word "shit" three times during moments of crisis and:
Crease: Motherfuckers mess with me, I'll split your head!
Whistler: And give him head whenever he asks...
  • Reconstruction: Of the cyberpunk genre, thanks to Shown Their Work.
  • Red Herring: And yes, Communism is one of them.
  • Rewind, Replay, Repeat: The protagonists repeatedly watch a videotape of Janek in his office, with a woman who's in the room saying "I leave message here on service, but you do not call," each time. Finally one of the group realizes that since Janek uses a phone message service, he doesn't need an answering machine, so the answering machine on his desk must be something else - the Little Black Box.
  • Shout-Out:
    • While picking through Brandes' trash, Mother holds up a folded box of "Cap'n Crunch", as a tribute to famed phone phreaker John "Captain Crunch" Draper. Another reference appears during the Scrabble game, when the word "CRUNCH" appears before it gets turned into "SCRUNCHY".
    • When Whistler says that he wishes for "peace on earth, good will toward men....and women," he is echoing (probably unintentionally) Bruce Wayne in Batman Returns - a movie that had been released less than three months earlier.
  • Shown Their Work: Lots, but the most notable was having Professor Len Adleman -- one of the three mathematicians who invented the RSA cryptosystem (he's the "A")-- as a mathematical consultant on the film.
  • Significant Anagram: Setec Astronomy <--> Too many secrets
  • Social Engineering: Many varieties.
  • Stolen MacGuffin Reveal
  • Storming the Castle
  • The Syndicate:

Cosmo: There I was in prison. One day I help a couple of nice older gentlemen make some free telephone calls. They turn out to be... let us say, "good family men".
Bishop: Organized crime?
Cosmo: Don't kid yourself. It's not that organized.

Liz: The man who folded this tube of Crest is looking for someone meticulous. Refined. Anal. ...What?

Bishop: You're sure you know which one to cut?
Carl: Yes! The alarm's always the green one.
*snip* Darkness falls around them as the burglar alarm keeps ringing.
Bishop: Good, Carl...

Bishop: "[Y]ou gave your word."
Cosmo: "I cannot kill my friend. [to henchman] Kill my friend."