Last Updated on December 15, 2023
Let’s get this out of the way right off the top: Phil Alden Robinson’s Sneakers (a previous Best Movie You Never Saw entry) is one of the most criminally under-seen movies from the 90s – maybe of all time. Sporting an airtight plot, a phenomenal cast and splendid direction, it’s been relegated to cult classic status as opposed to just plain old classic status. And while there’s nothing wrong with being a cult classic, it’s just when a movie is this good, it’s always surprising to find there are so many people who’ve never seen it. Well, we’re here to change that the best way we know how, by cracking the code of what makes a great movie so special. So boot up your super-computers and draw down the shades – cuz you never know who might be watching you – and let’s find out WTF Happened to Sneakers.
In the event you’re one of those folks who’re unfamiliar with the film, or just need a refresher, let’s delve into what Sneakers is all about. And, by the way, if you’ve never seen it, go ahead and do that, then come right back here. Sneakers concerns an oddball group of crafty security consultants whose job it is to break into the computer systems of big companies in order to suss out their security failings. Typically eccentric, this crew consists of hackers, former government officials, and reformed criminals. Their latest job sees them trying to obtain a mysterious black box that holds the power to crack through every single encryption system out there – the ultimate code-breaker. Naturally, the gang learns the folks who’ve hired them are not who they seem, and soon they find themselves in way over their heads.
The cast is excellent, with Robert Redford never better as the unofficial leader of the group; the late Sidney Poitier as an ex-CIA official who acts as the pragmatic father figure; Dan Aykroyd as a paranoid conspiracy theorist; David Strathairn as a blind sound expert who sees more than anyone else; and River Phoenix as a former student adept at getting himself in and out of tight situations. Ben Kingsley joins the show about halfway through as a mysterious villain with ties to Redford’s past, and Mary McDonnell brings some feminine class as Redford’s on-again, off-again squeeze – who of course gets wrapped up in their shenanigans against her will. Telling you, this is a perfect cast in a movie that gives each of them plenty to do.
So how did it all get started? Fittingly, a movie with a plot as convoluted as this one took about nine years to get made. The idea originated with screenwriters Lawrence Lasker and Walter Parkes, who wrote the 1983 hit War Games. During their research into that film, they stumbled upon a real group of people known as “sneakers,” who are hired to break into corporations in order to test the strength of their security. They had some of the basics of the concept set when they were hired to write a different film, so they asked their friend, another writer named Phil Alden Robinson, to work on Sneakers while they went off to do something else. Over the course of the first year, the three would meet constantly to do research and gather ideas – their research would lead them to real hackers and security people who would go on to inspire some of the characters in the final product. We won’t get into every story meeting they ever had, but let’s just say that over the course of nine years, the three eventually cracked the narrative that would become Sneakers – even as it took something in the neighborhood of 30-plus drafts to get there.
Robinson didn’t initially want to direct, but his collaborators eventually coerced him into doing so. At the end of 1989, the writer-director was coming off the huge success of Field of Dreams, which ended up being a much bigger cultural phenomenon than anyone had foreseen. Suddenly, Robinson had real clout in the business and could get Sneakers made.
Sneakers was originally set up at Paramount but ultimately moved to Universal, the studio behind Field of Dreams. The film’s success, of course, would hinge on its cast, which would eventually consist of a combination of huge names and veteran character actors. Getting the leading man right was crucial because even though the film is an ensemble, Martin Bishop is the true beating heart of the piece. Originally, the character was pictured to be in his 40s, around the same age as Robinson at the time, and so the director compiled a list of all the big stars in Hollywood who might fit the bill. At an Oscar party for Dances with Wolves, an agent approached Robinson and revealed he’d shown the script to Robert Redford already and the actor was excited about doing it. Robinson was initially mortified, thinking the 50-something Redford too old for the part, but he re-read the script while picturing the iconic actor as Bishop and fell in love with the idea. Of course, the fact that Redford starred in a couple of the great paranoid thrillers of the 70s, Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men, made his casting that much more fitting.
The movie evidently came together quickly after Redford signed on. Robinson asked Poitier, whom he knew a little, if he was interested and the actor agreed immediately after reading the script. Dan Aykroyd similarly loved it and agreed to do it – with one catch. Aykroyd wanted to play Cosmo, the villainous figure from Bishop’s past. Robinson informed Aykroyd he wanted the comedian to play “Mother,” the conspiracy-obsessed ex-convict. Aykroyd was insistent he play Cosmo, but when Robinson told him he had Ben Kingsley in mind for that role, Aykroyd agreed to take on the comedic part instead.
Ironically, in real life Aykroyd and his brother Peter are big conspiracy nuts, and during the Sneakers commentary, it’s revealed Dan would entertain the crew with bizarre theories that were much more outlandish than any his character comes up with. Dan alleges his performance as Mother was based on his brother.
River Phoenix took on the role of Carl Arbogast soon after wrapping My Own Private Idaho, which was apparently a very difficult experience for the actor, so he wanted to do something more lighthearted and fun.
David Strathairn took the role of the blind Whistler very seriously – according to the audio commentary, Strathairn actually attended a school for the blind in order to study the movements of blind people. While on set, he would walk around with his eyes closed, feeling around and getting to know the lay of the land, in order to accurately portray how Whistler would have to get around on his own.
The beloved character actor Stephen Tobolowsky has a small but pivotal role as an employee of Kingsley’s. When he was first sent the script, Tobolowsky scoffed at the title, thinking it was going to be a bad sports comedy, but after reading it he told his agent he knew what a hundred million dollars at the box office reads like. In an article for Slate Magazine twenty years after the film’s release, Tobolowsky confesses he’d never had so much fun on a movie, and he lovingly geeks out about sitting at the first table read with the star-studded cast and getting to improvise his very amusing scenes with Mary McDonnell.
The film was shot on the Universal Studios lot. The opening sequence, a prologue featuring younger versions of Redford and Kingsley’s characters, was shot on the famous “Clock Tower” set from Back to the Future, while the interior of the Sneakers’ hideout was the same stage that would house a gigantic T-Rex for Spielberg’s Jurassic Park a year later. Incidentally, those two young actors who played young Bishop and Cosmo actually met with Redford and Kingsley for a day to get their mannerisms and personalities just right, in what was surely a thrill for the two younger thespians.
One of the key supporting characters is a mathematician named Gunter Janek, played by a young Donal Logue. Janek is the man who creates the code-breaking device that everyone is after, and he was based on a real computer scientist named Len Adleman. Adleman actually wrote much of Janek’s dialogue and even contributed the complex figures that are projected onto the wall behind him during his first appearance. Adleman was offered money for his work but he responded with a counter-offer: he and his wife would get to meet Robert Redford. The producers agreed, and Adleman and his spouse were allowed on set during the Janek sequence.
One day on set, Robinson was approached by a couple of mysterious and ominous men who claimed they were from the Office of Naval Intelligence. They were there to inform him he was not to, under any circumstance, refer to a handheld device that can break through all of the world’s many encryptions. Obviously, the little black box is key to the movie’s plot, so this was alarming news to the director. Lucky for him, he eventually learned the visit was a hoax perpetrated by one of the film’s cast members, though it’s unclear who the perpetrator was.
Before the picture’s release, Universal sent a computer disc to film journalists that contained press notes, cast biographies, and images – this was evidently the first digital press kit in the history of the movies. If you received one, you had to hack your way through it to get to the information, but the story goes it was intentionally very easy to get through, even for press folks who weren’t very tech-savvy.
Furthermore, Phil Robinson did a press day on the internet via Compuserve at the PC Expo Computer Trade Show – yes, this was in 1992, the very, very early days of the World Wide Web. Obviously, the technology in the film seems quaint now, but there’s no doubting that its themes are still relevant today; as Cosmo tells Bishop at one point, it’s not about who has the most bullets, it’s about who controls the information. Sneakers was ahead of its time because it knew that everybody’s information would eventually be up for grabs, maybe even at the click of a button.
When it was released in September of ’92, Sneakers landed in the top spot at the box office with $10 million. It eventually cleared $50 million domestic, making it a modest success. Its reviews were mostly positive, but the film didn’t seem to make much of an impact until some years later, when diehard fans of the unusual caper movie would end up finding out with great relief that there were other Sneakers-heads out there. People who can quote the movie’s dozens of memorable lines by heart and who appreciate a good old-fashioned comedic thriller with an excellent ensemble cast. Nowadays the movie would be filled with all kinds of action and gunplay, but Sneakers gets by on its wits and charisma… just like its characters.
In 2016, it was revealed NBC was working on a TV series based on Sneakers with co-writer Walter Parkes on board as a producer. Unfortunately, that adaptation never gained traction and, so far, hasn’t gone before cameras. This writer would have been down for a sequel years ago, but clearly the door has been closed on that possibility for some years. That being said, it’s comforting to know Sneakers can’t be seen enough times. As Bob Redford can tell you, the classics never really get old.