“So, people hire you to break into their places… to make sure no one can break into their places?” “It’s a living.” “Not a very good one.”
I suspect that any occupation develops its own subculture over time, and I’m certain that any subculture develops its own cultural touchstones. I’m a computer programmer by trade, so over the years I’ve had ample opportunity to discover what films are considered “must see” movies among computer geeks. Office Space is a popular choice; we can relate, and we’ve all worked with those people. The Matrix is also commonly discussed, though in reality it has about as much to do with programming as Star Wars has to do with farming. I’m not a big fan of Hackers, personally, but it comes up too often to dismiss. And a few benighted souls might throw the name Swordfish around. They usually don’t last long. But if you want to earn my respect as a computer film geek, you need to know the meaning of the phrase “Setec Astronomy”. 1992’s Sneakers is the best film ever made about hacking, blending comedy, mystery, and suspense with a nearly-completely realistic portrayal of computer security.
But suppose you’re not a computer programmer, or hacker, or security guru; after all, statistically speaking, you’re probably not. Does Sneakers have anything to offer for you? How about a narrative that never bores, that spices things up with the occasional laugh-out-loud one-liner, and is directed by the man behind the Oscar-nominated Field of Dreams, Phil Alden Robinson? How about an amazingly star-studded cast, with Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, Dan Aykroyd, River Phoenix, David Straithairn, Mary McDonnell, Ben Kingsley, and James Earl Jones? Of the major players in the film, the only one not to have already been at least nominated for an Oscar by 1992 was Straithairn — and he’d finally get a nomination in 2006 for his role in Good Night and Good Luck. It may not be possible to find a movie with a more densely-packed star cluster.
I could tell you what it’s about, but then I’d have to kill you… actually, I think I can just tell you what it’s about.
Martin Bishop (Redford) is the head of a “tiger team” — a group of experts at breaking through security, who are hired by banks and other firms to test their security. As a bank secretary notes early on, their job is to break in to show where the vulnerabilities are. After one such job, a couple of men, identifying themselves as Dick Gordon and Buddy Wallace, come to the office to talk to Martin. Gordon and Wallace are played by character actors Timothy Busfield and Eddie Jones, respectively; neither may be as famous as the stars of the film, but it’s still somewhat amusing to see Busfield, who became famous as Arnold Poindexter in Revenge of the Nerds play a smirking manipulative weasel. Jones, contrariwise, is good in a quiet role as Wallace, who at one point even his own ally says he can’t be rabid because “rabies only occurs in warm-blooded animals”.
The two men have come to offer Bishop and his crew a job, but they have some questions about the team… specifically they seem to have been able to dig up a lot of dirt on the team. Darren “Mother” Roskow (Aykroyd), the paranoid conspiracy theorist technician… 18 months for breaking and entering. “Yeah, he was framed, but he’s got the best hands in the business.” Carl Arbogast (Phoenix), caught breaking into the school district computer to change his grades. “We’re the ones who caught him!” Irwin Emery, known as “Whistler”, a blind man who is a genius with sound (played very convincingly by the sighted Straithairn)… 62 counts of phone phreaking. Donald Crease (Poitier), 22 year veteran of the CIA… terminated for an inability to control his temper. Every member of the team seems to have some dirty secret in their past.
“And then there’s Martin Bishop… he doesn’t seem to have a past.”
The men reveal that they’re from the NSA (“We’re the good guys, Marty.” “I can’t tell you what a relief that is, Dick.”), and a quiet little name drop reveals that they know Bishop’s secret past under his real name of Martin Brice. As a college student in 1969, Martin and his friend Cosmo made a regular habit of hacking into financial institutions, taking money away from organizations and individuals they felt were unworthy of it, and giving it to those they felt deserved it. One fateful night, Cosmo got caught. Martin had been going out for pizza… and then went further out to Canada until the heat died down. Gordon and Wallace use this information for a classic carrot-and-stick maneuver to get Martin to agree to take their job: do it, and get $175,000; don’t do it, and he goes to prison, probably for the rest of his life. With no real options, Martin talks his team into taking the job (“I’m in it for the money; I don’t care if you go to jail.”), and also recruits his ex-girlfriend Liz (Mary McDonnell), the one person who knew his secret, to assist him in doing recon on the target.
The target in question is Dr. Gunter Janek, a mathematician who has recently received a massive research grant, apparently from the Russians. He’s been working on some kind of “black box”, under a project labeled “Setec Astronomy”. Bishop’s job? Get the box, get it to the NSA. Martin and Liz’s reconnaissance consists of attending a lecture by Janek (Donal Logue), which consists of a brief (for the home audience) discussion of large-number theory and cryptography. You don’t have to understand what Janek is talking about (in fact, it’s not very in-depth, and the focus keeps jumping back to Bishop and Liz’s chatter), but the little of it that is shown is actually pretty accurate — thanks to consultations with one of the creators of RSA encryption. For the audience’s purposes, and the film mercifully only goes into it this far, what’s important to know is that many encryption methods consist of complex mathematical processes that can only be cracked if you have a specific very large prime number — a number which is virtually impossible to guess, and a code which is otherwise unbreakable.
There won’t be a quiz later.
After their investigation, the team determines that Janek does indeed have some sort of black box device, and Bishop goes into Janek’s office to get his hands on it. One of the film’s many strengths is the way it portrays the act of breaking security. Many later films and television shows portray it as a simple matter of hacking into a computer — even if that computer wouldn’t even be accessible from the outside — and doing everything from there. In real life, and in Sneakers, a lot of the techniques are decidedly low-tech. Most passwords aren’t lost through a remote hacking job, but by somebody casually asking what your password is under the guise of someone who has a legitimate reason to know. Sometimes personal information is stolen via a Trojan horse giving someone remote access, and sometimes it’s stolen because somebody literally wandered in off the street and walked out with the computer housing the database. Breaking and entering, spying and “social engineering” (talking people into giving you what you want) all have bigger roles to play in the action of Sneakers than typing at a keyboard — and as a result, it’s not only more realistic than a lot of hacker portrayals, but also more interesting to watch as well.
Once they get their hands on the box, the team has a celebratory party before getting ready to hand off the box in the morning. While Whistler, Mother, and Carl fiddle around with the black box, Martin, Liz, and Crease put their minds to figuring out just what “Setec Astronomy” actually means. Bishop figures out that it might be meaningless in and of itself, and — in a motif foreshadowed in the opening credits — determines it might be an anagram of some significant phrase. Using their Scrabble game as a starting point, they try to decipher the meaning behind the name while the others try to see what the box does.
Some of the anagrams are more plausible than others.
Bishop, Crease, and Liz descramble “Setec Astronomy” as “Too Many Secrets” — right as Whistler hits upon a spot in the black box’s circuitry that dumps a ton of data into his I/O interface. Acting on a hunch, he has Mother activate the circuitry while Carl dials up computers they know are inaccessible due to encryption… and the box breaks through. The Federal Reserve. (“Anybody want to shut down the Federal Reserve?”) They’re amazed at first, and laughing. The National Power Grid. (“Anybody want to black out New England?”) Their laughter starts sounding a little nervous. The Federal Air Traffic Control system.
“Uh… want to crash some passenger jets?”
And then they stop laughing. The game has gone from humorous to terrifying, because with this device, they could actually do it. The black box — the one bit of techno-fantasy in this otherwise realistic film — doesn’t need the super-large prime number keys to decrypt codes. It can solve the problems algorithmically, break through any encryption. The ultimate code-breaker.
No more secrets.
The team is now greatly concerned about the device on their hands. As Crease notes, any government in the world would kill them all to get their hands on the black box. And they’ve already figured out just how dangerous it could be in the wrong hands. And then things go from bad to worse when after the hand-off they figure out the men who hired Bishop aren’t the NSA. In order to get protection from the actual NSA and prevent unimaginable danger from the black box, Martin’s team has to track down the bad guys and recover the device. And at the head of it all is Ben Kingsley, playing a chilling, sinister, yet somehow likeable mafia man who, of course, is Martin’s old friend Cosmo, who didn’t die in prison after all. Unbeknownst to his mob superiors, Cosmo still believes in the Robin Hood ideology Martin and he started out with all those years ago, but has twisted it and taken it further — he wants to use the device to destroy all records of ownership, introduce total anarchy to the world economy.
“Posit: People think a bank might be financially shaky.”
“Consequence: People start to withdraw their money.”
“Result: Pretty soon it is financially shaky.”
“Conclusion: You can make banks fail.”
He tries to recruit Martin to his side, but of course, Martin’s grown up in the meantime and has abandoned his anarchic ways. The final act of the film involves Martin’s team trying to recover the black box before Cosmo can do significant damage with it. To break in, they have to find ways to beat security guards, heat sensors, and a voice-activated security system, the latter of which requires them to scam one of the employees of the front company for Cosmo’s building (played by underrated character actor Stephen Tobolowsky, who might be more familiar to viewers as “Ned the Head” Ryerson from Groundhog Day.) It involves more social engineering, creative problem solving, and a break-in that winds up looking like a far less glamorous version of Mission Impossible or the James Bond films. That’s a good thing, incidentally; it’s less glamorous, but more realistic (and funnier). There’s split second escapes, near escapes, threatened violence, actual violence, and a spectacularly bad choice of getaway driver (not that they had a choice at the time). And ultimately they wind up having a meeting with actual NSA director Bernard Abbot, played by James Earl Jones in a scene that is one laugh after another.
“I want peace on Earth and good will towards men.”
“We are the United States government. We don’t do that sort of thing.”
Sneakers is a classic film for computer geeks because of its realistic portrayal of hacking, but it’s a great film even if you’re not a tech-head. As a less-glitzy espionage film, it manages to be suspenseful without giving in to the temptation to be ludicrous, and what few plot holes there are can be explained away with the motivations of characters that become apparent as time goes on. It’s a funny film, with frequent one-liners, and though Dan Aykroyd gets some of the funniest lines as conspiracy theorist Mother everybody gets their chance to shine with some dry wit, even Ben Kingsley. With an ensemble cast, it’s difficult to focus too much on any individual character besides Martin Bishop, but the easy, natural interplay between the actors helps sell the audience on the idea that these are people who are used to working with each other and trusting each other. Particularly good are Poitier reacting to Aykroyd’s rants, McDonnell as Liz reluctantly letting herself be roped into Bishop’s life again, and Kingsley and Redford as two old friends who like each other, and know each other thoroughly, but don’t trust each other any more.
Set immediately after the end of the Cold War — as the minor spy character Gregor (George Hearn) says “This is a very confusing time for people in my line of work” — it would have been very easy for Sneakers to have been a product of its time and quickly become dated. But in a lot of ways, this film is even more relevant than it was upon its release. Computers were still isolated devices in 1992, but they’re everywhere and highly interconnected now. And when we hear Cosmo talking about how perception affects reality, and can bring down banks, stock markets, currencies, commodities, and even small countries — well, it’s hard not to consider the past few years when we’ve seen peoples’ bad decisions bring down banks, stock markets, currencies, etc. If nothing else, it’s a point that bears thinking about — just as banks hire Martin’s tiger team to expose their weaknesses, sometimes the bad guy in a film has a point worth examining if only to try and address it.
Sneakers is a thrilling, funny, interesting, intelligent, and relevant film for both computer geeks and regular people alike. It was one of the first films I ever bought on DVD, and I re-watch it about once a year. It’s one of my favorite films.
“What’s really important is that none of this ever happened.”