Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The release of George Clooney’s The Monuments Men has us fondly recalling other movies about groups, teams, squads, and merry collectives.
Perhaps one of the most elemental pleasures in thrillers is watching a group of ragtag professionals break into some kind of high-security facility. The best of these movies balance the difficulty of the task with a memorable group of personalities, never putting too much emphasis on magical caper-enabling technology. Sneakers takes place at a transition point between old-fashioned caper movies and newfangled techno-thrillers, which may be why—despite computer graphics that would look outdated in a matter of years—the story itself doesn’t feel all that musty.
Robert Redford plays an ex-radical hacker living under an assumed name, making a living (though “not a very good one,” one bank teller bemusedly comments) breaking into (yes) high-security facilities, testing their systems with the help of (yes again) a group of ragtag professionals. In terms of star power, that group isn’t exactly Ocean’s Eleven level. There are a couple of aging legends (Redford and Sidney Poitier), a Saturday Night Live vet turned big-screen second banana (Dan Aykroyd), a then-rising star (the late River Pheonix), and a character actor who many probably knew as “the blind guy from Sneakers” until his Oscar nomination a decade and a half later (David Strathairn). Mary McDonnell reluctantly climbs into the boys’ clubhouse, surrounding herself with nerds, weirdos, and disgraced old guys.
Sneakers makes great, efficient use of its actors; they establish their easy chemistry so quickly that the screenplay, credited to director Phil Alden Robinson and the writers of WarGames, can immediately put them to work multitasking. So while Redford, Poitier, and McDonnell look at anagrams for the mysterious Setec Astronomy—a black-box code-breaking project—Strathairn, Phoenix, and Aykroyd can figure out that the box (which they’ve just stolen) can decrypt any computer system. Later on, the movie can cut between Redford eluding a security system by moving at exactly two inches per second and McDonnell embarking on an amateur-espionage date with Dr. Werner Brandes (Stephen Tobolowsky). Tobolowsky, anagrams, blind driving, a jazzy but tense James Horner score—this movie has everything, and it’s all deceptively well engineered. Sneakers is a team effort that doesn’t call attention to itself.
Availability: Sneakers is available on DVD, which can be obtained through Netflix, and to rent or purchase through the major digital services.