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Film: Sneakers
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 excellence.
  • 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 Mc Donnell), 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...


This movie features the following tropes:

  • Air-Vent Passageway: In the finale, Martin tries to get out this way. It almost works, but the people looking for him have very good hearing. It does work earlier in the film for Karl, though.
  • Aliens Steal Cattle: According to Mother, anyway.
  • All-Star Cast: To an almost ridiculous extent. Besides Redford, Ben Kingsley played Cosmo, and the supporting cast featuring Sidney Poitier, Dan Aykroyd, David Straithairn, Mary Mc Donnell, and (the now sadly deceased) River Phoenix — plus a One-Scene Wonder appearance by James Earl Jones.
  • Are You Sure You Can Drive This Thing?: Whistler has to drive a truck. Whistler is blind, and has to receive instructions via walkie-talkie. Hilarity Ensues.
    Bishop: Now you're gonna go down a very ... gentle slope.
    (Whistler clutches the wheel and screams as the van careens down a forty-five-degree incline)
  • Beneath Notice: Carl dresses up as a gardener in order to sneak into the Playtronics headquarters. While he did arouse suspicion when he seemingly disappeared from the bathroom, the guards stopped worrying once they saw Mother dressed identically outside.
  • Big Bad Friend: Cosmo.
  • Big "NO!": Abbot's response to Bish's suggestion that he chaperone Carl's date. Played for laughs.
  • Bilingual Bonus: "Leroy Brown", sung at the Chinese restaurant. Also some elements of the Russian.
  • Blind Driving: See Are You Sure You Can Drive This Thing? above.
  • Blindfolded Trip: Martin is thrown into a trunk and taken to Cosmo's headquarters. Afterwards Whistler is able to work out where he went by asking him questions about what he heard and deducing from there.
  • Bomb Throwing Anarchist: Averted. Cosmo seems to be the genuine article.
  • Bookends / 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.
  • Boxed Crook: Martin, when approached by Gordon and Wallace.
  • Check Please: At the end of the "computer date." (Odd, since they're still at the restaurant at closing time, and presumably would have been given the check long ago.)
  • Chekhov's Gun: The murder of Janek is later tied to the murder of Gregor by "an anonymous tip" as seen in a newscast.
    • Mother's shell case for the Little Black Box that he gives Martin to use as "practice" for the recovery of the Black Box from Cosmo's office. Martin uses it to trick Cosmo at the end.
  • Choke Holds: Dick Gordon knocks out Bishop with a sleeper hold. In contrast to the repeated Tap on the Head he's been given up to this point, it's an act of mercy.
  • Conspiracy Theorist: Mother
    Mother: Cattle mutilations are up.
  • Cool Shades
  • Crazy Homeless People: Subverted; Martin encounters one saying "The government took my home!" outside the building where he's going to meet the NSA agents. Martin points at an election poster for the current President and says, "Tell it to him." Later when Martin and Crease realise they've been conned, they race back to the building and find it in the process of being demolished.
    Homeless Guy: The government took my home!
  • Cutting the Knot: When faced with a keypad lock on a door, Martin asks his Mission Control how to get past it. We see him listening and nodding to a seemingly lengthy explanation. Then he kicks in the door.
    Bishop: It worked.
  • Cyber Punk: 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.
    • Dr Brandes realizing that his date is using a fake name and had asked him to say the word "passport" earlier added up to "she's trying to break into my office".
  • Dating Service Disaster: Invoked Trope. The protagonists hack a matchmaking service to set up a blind date between Liz and one of Playtronics'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.
  • Death Glare: Donald Crease gives one to a security cop who refers to him as "Midnight." note 
  • Disability Superpower: Whistler, who's blind and has incredibly sharp hearing. His character 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.
  • Enhance Button: Occurs at least twice: during the surveillance of Janek's office and the PlayTronics building.
  • Exact Words
    Bishop: They said they were from the government!
    Whistler: They probably were from the government... just not ours.
  • Fakin' MacGuffin: At the end of the film, the villain ends up with an empty duplicate of the casing containing the MacGuffin, while Marty gives the real casing to the NSA — but only the casing, keeping the MacGuffin itself.
  • False Flag Operation: Marty isn't being blackmailed by the NSA, but by former agents now working for Cosmo.
  • False Reassurance
  • Five-Man Band: Marty is The Hero, Crease is The Lancer, Mother is the Big Guy, Whistler is the Smart Guy, Karl is the Tagalong Kid and Liz is The Chick.
  • Foreshadowing
    • Early in the film, a security guard is watching Orson Welles' Touch of Evil. Pay attention to the brief piece of audible dialogue.
    • At the party Carl says "I'd like to have a deep relationship with a beautiful woman who melts from the very first time our eyes meet." At the end of the film he meets a beautiful NSA agent who is impressed by him and gives him her phone number.
  • Got Volunteered: Liz on the blind date. See Why Are You Looking at Me Like That?
  • Head-Tiltingly Kinky: Marty is watching Janek (who's in his apartment) with a camera. Janek's girlfriend comes in, and as they start making out, we hear her tell Janek, "Let's do what we did in Mexico City!" Marty tilts his head and mutters, "I didn't know you could do that in Mexico City."
  • Helium Speech: Carl at the party, much to the amusement of the others.
    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. While the MacGuffin is entirely fictional, if something did what it could do, it would be able to slice through virtually any modern encryption. The description of how cryptology works is dead-on accurate — Len Adelman, cocreator of RSA (public-key) encryption, consulted on the movie. The visual representation, on the other hand, is baloney.
  • Hollywood Hacking:
    • Averted for the most part. 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 the Phone-Trace Race, are less so.
    • Cracking RSA encryption might let you read people's mail, but it won't necessarily let you break into computer systems.
  • 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.
  • Ironic Echo
    • Martin and Cosmo's reunion as adults, in Cosmo's office. Actually a chain of Ironic Echoes, as the first line is a throwback to the prologue so we know who's speaking.
    Cosmo: Pain? Try aspirin.
    [...and after things don't go well...]
    Cosmo: Pain? Try prison.
    • During the party, the group details what they would like to do with their money. They use these aspirations to blackmail Abbott and the NSA in the end.
  • 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
  • Lie Detector: Mother's voice stress analyzer, though he takes pains to point out it's not even remotely perfect, but good enough for their purposes. It helps significantly that Abbot is a terrible liar.
  • Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot: The theft of a black box and the murder of its creator → a plot to cause the collapse of the world economy.
  • Mission Control: Martin and Carl tend to go in the field, while Crease, Whistler, and Mother play peanut gallery.
  • Mundane Made Awesome: James Horner's score at the climax of the movie ("The Escape/Whistler's Rescue" on the soundtrack album) makes a blind man trying to drive a truck across a parking lot sound like a miracle on par with ET levitating the bikes over the police roadblock. And you get to hear it again during the end credits track.
  • Mundane Wish: A non-magical version appears when the team is negotiating with the NSA for the box.
    Carl: I just want her telephone number.
  • New Era Speech: Cosmo tries to bring Martin around with one on the rooftop.
  • 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. 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.
    Carl: It is amazing what fifty bucks will get you at the County Recorder's office. {unfurling a roll of paper:) Playtronics corporate headquarters, the complete blueprints.
    Bishop: Not bad. Not bad, Carl! — Where'd you get the fifty bucks?
    Carl: Took it from Mother's wallet.
    Bishop: Good.
  • 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.
  • Rogue Agent
    • Donald Crease is a former agent from the CIA who uses his talents with Martin's ragtag group.
    • Buddy Wallace is a villainous version working for Cosmo.
  • Scrabble Babble: Martin attempts to play "scrunchy".
  • Shout-Out:
    • Martin dodges arrest because he's out picking up late-night pizza when they're raided. Redford's character in Three Days Of The Condor avoids being murdered because he's out picking up lunch.
    • 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".
    • The sequence where Bishop retraces his journey blindfolded is taken from the 1965 Rock Hudson film Blindfold - down to the "cocktail party" gag.
    • When young Cosmo orders the pepperoni pizza from young Martin he tells him to bring it "Shaken, not stirred", just like James Bond used to order his martinis.
  • 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.
  • Tap on the Head: Dick Gordon knocks out Bishop with a sleeper hold.
  • Technical Pacifist: Cosmo
  • Television Geography: Averted. Most of the geography shown is quite accurate and reasonable. In particular the scene where they trace where Martin was taken can be logically followed to a location in the East Bay.
  • Trespassing To Talk: When the team returns to their office after recovering the Black Box, they find a team of NSA agents waiting for them.
  • Utopia Justifies the Means: Cosmo's motivation for acquiring the box by kidnapping and almost killing Marty.
  • Vanity License Plate: 180 IQ. Belonging to Werner Brandes.
  • Viewer-Friendly Interface: When they hack into the U.S. Air Traffic Control System, it immediately displays a radar map with points representing airplanes moving around on it. There's no main menu. They get a map right away, so that you can see what they just hacked into (though in that particular case, it's implied that they're not hacking into a ATC network, but a terminal, which makes a little more sense).
  • Voice with an Internet Connection: The Mission Control sneakers use their collected knowledge, documents, and the internet to help Martin and Carl on the missions through an earpiece.
  • Who Shot JFK?:
    Crease: Now what are you saying, the NSA killed Kennedy?
    Mother: No, they shot him but they didn't kill him. He's still alive.
  • Why Are You Looking at Me Like That?:
    Liz: The man who folded this tube of Crest is looking for someone meticulous. Refined. Anal. (the guys, including blind Whistler, turn to look at Liz)...What?
  • Why We Are Bummed Communism Fell
    • Gregor, a KGB agent working undercover as a Russian diplomat, feels this way.
    • Also true of the Big Bad in terms of his ultimate goal.
  • Wrong Wire: Not a bomb, but amusing nonetheless —
    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 fire alarm keeps ringing.
    Bishop: Good, Carl...
  • You're Insane!: Martin's reaction to Cosmo.
  • You Said You Would Let Them Go
    Bishop: "[Y]ou gave your word."
    Cosmo: "I cannot kill my friend. [to henchman] Kill my friend."

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alternative title(s): Sneakers
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