Revisiting the only accurate movie about computer hackers, 1992’s Sneakers, and why none of you philistines deserve it.

We haven’t gotten around to a post defining the cyberpunk genre yet, so we leave that up to frisky sites like this one. If we had a definition for cyberpunk movies, we’d then have to explain why the 1992 techno-thriller with an all-star cast and a 180 IQ, Sneakers (1992), qualifies as one. Even though it’s not a chrome-plated futuristic science fiction movie, it is baked in the cyberpunk ethos of “high-tech / low-life.”

Very briefly and without spoilers, Sneakers is about a misfit team who work as a security consultant company. Today we would call them “white hat” hackers, but their characters all have at least a gray edge to them. This cast demands its own bullet list:

  • Robert Redford – Marty Bishop, the leader, ace con man
  • Sidney Poitier – Crease, second in command, ex-CIA
  • David Strathairn – Whistler, a blind old-school phreaker
  • Dan Aykroyd – Mother, a semi-autistic hardware genius, conspiracy theorist, comic relief
  • River Phoenix – Carl, a pretty-faced kid useful for bluffing past security guards
  • Mary McDonnell – Liz, Marty’s old flame who gets dragged into the job when needed

That’s Team Hacker. They get hired (“blackmailed,” more like it) into securing a computer-code-cracking “black box” invented by a brilliant mathematician with no clue about the ramifications of his invention. However, it turns out the team was duped by Cosmo (Ben Kingsley), an old colleague of Marty’s who has since resolutely turned to the Dark Side of the hacking force.

What unwinds from all this is an internationally-flavored techno-thriller where everybody plays a fiendishly brilliant game of “capture the box.” While Sneakers gets broad praise and an adoring cult following today in DefCon circles, it is still underappreciated and underrated compared to the far inferior movies everybody thinks of when you say “hacker movie.” I’ll burn that bridge when I come to it, but first let’s wow you with Sneaker‘s impressive credentials:

Defense Secretary Carter Visits U.S. Cyber Command At Fort Meade

1. It was the first movie to address the NSA

In 1992, nobody had really heard about the NSA yet. It had been formed in 1952 at peak Cold War tensions, but had lurked in the background while the FBI and CIA sucked up all the media attention. The year 1992 was perfect timing for Sneakers to come out, under a president (George HW Bush) who was a former CIA director, and just one year after the enacting of the Gore Bill, which would turn into jokes about how Al Gore “invented the Internet” forever. It was the dawn of the World Wide Web, kicked off by Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Into the middle of all this dropped a movie about information security.

On a side note, I have to talk sometime about George HW “thousand points of light” Bush and his year, singular, as CIA head, because that story alone could bring both Hunter S. Thompson and Robert Anton Wilson back from the dead and give them brain aneurysms, but we have levels to grind here.

tiger_team

2. There really is such a thing as a “Sneaker”

In the early part of the movie, a secretary is shown typing up the consultants’ paycheck while awkwardly reciting: “People hire you to break into their places, to make sure no one can break into their places?” Hey, exposition is a dirty job, but somebody’s gotta do it. But being a sneaker is actually a job you can have in real-life! Cited by the original hackers’ Jargon File as a “sneaker,” singular, and a team of sneakers (one who sneaks) is a “tiger team,” although today we refer to this profession as “penetration tester.” Despite the secretary’s limp retort in the movie, it’s actually a well-paid gig.

Cosmo_motive_rant

3. Cosmo’s motive rant is more relevant now than ever

In the movie’s prologue, Marty and Cosmo are shown to be two bright college students engaging in playful hacking. Cosmo tricks Marty into being the one to go out for pizza, which results in Marty not being there when police kick down the door to arrest Cosmo. Years later they’re reunited, but while Marty has reformed, Cosmo has doubled-down on his counter-cultural views, deciding it’s up to him to “crash the whole damned system.” Yeah, him and Light Yagami, and Tyler Durden while you’re at it.

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His later rant rings true in 2020:

> “There’s a war out there, old friend. A world war. And it’s not about who’s got the most bullets. It’s about who controls the information. What we see and hear, how we work, what we think… it’s all about the information!”

Terms that have been coined since Sneakers came out: Social media, fake news, cyberattack, astroturfing, data leak, bot, filter bubble, deepfake, clickbait, factoid, truthiness, meme, identity theft, cyberstalking, malware, rootkit, ransomware… “Russian interference in US election.”

RSA_encryption

4. Real-life hacker Len Adleman was a consultant

Leonard Adleman consulted on the script of Sneakers, which pays unusual attention to technology detail throughout most of the story. Adleman was one of the three creators of RSA encryption, a standard still used today, as well as winning a Turing Award and creating the field of DNA computing, among his other achievements. While Sneakers couldn’t ask for a higher-tier technical consultant, the movie is at some points obliged to take liberties with computer science in the interest of keeping it entertaining. The silly phone-trace-race scene stands out, for one.

phone_phreaking

5. Whistler’s character is based on a real-life phone phreak

The character of Whistler (David Strathairn) is a blind guy who always wears dark glasses. He has (holy Daredevil, Batman!) unusually keen hearing, which makes him good at phreaking, the now-ancient art of hacking the telecommunications system. We even have a scene where Whistler listens to the tones from phone connections to find the line to a security guard’s office. We all now know about John “Captain Crunch” Draper and his cereal box whistles, but not so well known today is Josef Carl Engressia Jr., AKA “Whistler,” a name he picked up in college from being able to whistle phone tones that could manipulate phone connections. Whistler’s character in the movie is perhaps an homage to both.

James_jesus_Angleton

6. “Mother” was allegedly the nickname of real-life CIA chief James Jesus Angleton

The character of Mother (Dan Aykroyd) is a hilarious nutjob whose office chatter is a litany of Kennedy assassination theories, trivia about the “faked moon landing,” and other paranoid beliefs ripped from tabloid pages of the time. “Mother” was also famously alleged to be the nickname of CIA counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton, who served at the beginning of the Cold War.

The “alleged” part takes some explaining. As the CIA’s own page on Angleton points out, there’s more urban legend to the man’s life than fact, even down to the alleged nicknames which they list. Angleton’s reputation was partly due to what a flipped-out nutjob he was, albeit his paranoia about Russian moles within US Intel turned out to be vindicated and then some. As for the alleged nickname, Miles Copeland Jr. was a low-level CIA officer who retired and wrote numerous tell-all gossipy books about US Intel – he’s the guy who alleged Angleton’s nickname was “Mother.”

We could fill whole books about James Jesus Angleton, which would page back Hunter S. Thompson and Robert Anton Wilson for a posthumous encore. Alas, we, again, digress.

social-engineering

7. Real-life hacking is at least 50% social engineering

Throughout the movie, we see Team Hacker spending more time hacking people than gadgets. They bluff their way past personal and professional obstacles alike, and have a knack for distracting security guards from checking IDs. Their skills are shown to be at least half acting. This is what makes Sneakers the most accurate hacking movie: social engineering is actually the most important skill to have in this line. That goes right down to digging through trash to profile someone, and acquiring building blueprints from the county records office for penetration purposes. Most of the information you need is right there on the surface, you just have to know how to look.

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MIT_hackathon

8. Sneakers is the only movie to capture the spirit of hacker culture

Isn’t this whole movie just good clean fun? That’s actually what a lot of technology culture is all about, particularly the hacker end. Whether it’s a hackathon, a security convention, a maker fair, or even just the cubicle farm at a reasonably positive software development company, hacker culture is playful. In an information society, knowledge is more power than it ever was before. It’s hard to have all that power and not show it off, even if only to each other. When the Sneakers crew is huddled around a computer screen snooping around and joking about how much mischief they could cause, that’s exactly what the banter around any server room sounds like. The same spirit of intelligent people showing off their off-kilter sense of humor applies to any geek gathering, of course.

SF_bay_area

9. It’s set in Silicon Valley before Silicon Valley was famous

It’s just mind-blowing to watch Sneakers today and think: 1992! The Dot-Com bubble and bust was years ahead. Apple hadn’t dropped a giant Borg donut on Cupertino. Sun Microsystems was still in business, and had yet to release Java! Microsoft Windows 3.1 was released just months before this movie hit the box office – Bill Gates was still “poor” (he didn’t top the Forbes list until 1995 with his first 12 billion). Not only is this movie set in and filmed in the San Francisco Bay Area, but you can even follow some directions given during one scene in the movie, albeit not to the fictional destination.

The-Matrix-sucks

10. It’s not The Matrix

Back to that bridge I said I was going to burn… Look, I know that movies like The Matrix franchise and Hackers (1995) are escapist fantasy meant to be good clean fun, but MY GOD are they ever insulting to computer geeks! Now that technology is more widespread and there’s a phone in every pocket, can we appreciate how stupid it feels to be surrounded by guffawing idiots whose concept of using a computer is raining green unicode characters, spouting CSI TV show technobabble, or whatever this ugly abomination is supposed to be? Can you understand where programmers got their reputation for being gruff when their message boards got flooded by a million kids blathering about taking the “red pill”?

Sneakers presents (mostly) realistic interfaces, text terminals, and actual things it was possible to do with technology. It champions core STEM values from start to finish, and gives us heavy questions to think about regarding the world we were just then creating. Looking back, we apparently should have thought harder about them. Sneakers compliments technology culture while looking sexier than Hackers, being less cheesy than The Matrix, and holding up today better than even most modern movies about the same topic.

At the time Sneakers came out, I lived in a world that deserved it. I now know that it doesn’t.

 

About the author

Penguin Pete

Penguin Pete

Geek tribal bard for the Internet, before "geek" was cool. Linux power user, MTG collector, light saber owner, cult movie fanatic, comic book memer, video gamer, Unix beard currently measures six inches.