Was “Sneakers” 20 Years Ahead of its Time?

In my ongoing quest to show my wife every movie I’ve ever known and loved, we found ourselves watching Sneakers last night, the 1992 Robert Redford vehicle about a group of hacking misfits who get blackmailed into stealing a codebreaking machine for the government. At least, that’s what they think they’re doing, but it gets complicated fast. It’s a fun, smart movie that never found a huge audience, the kind that would get lost to history if people like us didn’t remember it and seek it out. It’s also on HBO On Demand this month, if you want to give it a shot.



It’s also unbelievably timely. I forgot how much of the plot hinged around the NSA’s spying on Americans. Redford’s character – a countercultural folk hero who went underground after nearly being arrested for hacking into Richard Nixon’s bank account – is tasked with finding the codebreaker, but we’re never sure until the final scene who he’s actually working for. At first, we think it’s the Russians, but eventually, we learn it’s the NSA. Earlier in the movie, he gives them a call, and we get a glimpse of their spying capabilities:

I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same. The only difference is that in the movie, what the NSA is doing is against the law. In the final scene, the director of the NSA’s secret domestic spying program (played, in a perfect cameo, by James Earl Jones) buys off Redford’s entire gang in order to keep their information secret. I don’t see Snowden getting the same deal.

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