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It’s part of our job in The New York Times Arts section to constantly seek out the new. Or at least be familiar with it. But, as you know, it’s a stressful time. These days, I often find myself unable to concentrate on the new. I’ve drifted back to the familiar — things I’ve experienced three, five, 10 times before. I don’t think I’m alone in this.
Over the course of a recent weekend, I watched “The American President,” “Jurassic Park” and “Sneakers.” Here’s what I can tell you: “We’ve got serious problems and we need serious people.” Also, “life finds a way.” Additionally, “I leave message here on service, but you do not call.”
You might recognize the first two. I would love for you to know the third, because it comes from one of my most reliable comfort films.
I’m certainly not the first person to extol the odd pleasures of “Sneakers” (1992), a post-Cold War thriller-comedy-heist film directed by Phil Alden Robinson, the guy who did “Field of Dreams.” It stars Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, Ben Kingsley, Dan Aykroyd and David Strathairn as members of a San Francisco-based countersecurity firm who come across a device capable of breaking any U.S. government code.
Slate Magazine devoted several articles to the movie on its 20th anniversary, by which point it had acquired a small but passionate group of fans able to swap lines like “Too many secrets,” “Setec Astronomy” and “My voice is my passport, verify me.”
I’ve loved it for almost 30 years. It’s a weightless movie that makes me happy. Here are three reasons:
This is a movie in which the climactic set piece requires Redford’s character to walk across a room at two inches per second. Which is to say that it’s playful and pretty low stress. During a party held in the company’s very large San Francisco loft (pre-tech boom rents), everyone dances to Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools,” and River Phoenix does this:
There’s a middle-aged feel to “Sneakers.” And the cast tracks: a lineup of older actors and one terribly young one (this was Phoenix’s last major screen role) to put them all in relief. Redford channels “Three Days of the Condor” paranoia. At one point, Kingsley says the word “disaster” with an accent and delivery so befuddling that it has stuck with me for decades.
But they work wonderfully together. Any enjoyable heist movie requires a good team (the driver, the security guy, the muscle), and there’s a way in which this ragtag group feels like they’ve been scrapping together on small bank jobs for years. The film, which has so many scenes of the quintet communicating over walkie talkies and ear mics, also tries hard to frame them together in as many spaces as possible.
The Early Tech Nostalgia
Not surprisingly, given that the film was written by Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes, who wrote the 1983 Cold War computer thriller “WarGames,” there’s a preoccupation with the dangers of government, technology and the places where the two meet. But there’s also a sense of “this stuff is pretty cool.”
At one point, when speaking of Stephen Tobolowsky’s awkward character, someone says, “he’s a computer dater,” and it’s supposed to be a slightly sad thing. It’s refreshing to briefly be back in a somewhat recognizable world, but one devoid of smartphones and social media and trolls and memes, one where technology is still both awe-inspiring and a little nerdy.
“Sneakers” is available for digital rental on Amazon, iTunes and all major streaming platforms.