Sneakers: Robert Redford and River Phoenix nerd out in 1992’s prescient, high-tech caper

<span>Photograph: Ronald Grant</span>
Photograph: Ronald Grant

Phil Alden Robinson’s post-cold war exploration of cybercrime is bursting with big stars and big ideas about privacy and data

A charming Robert Redford stars in the 1992 gem Sneakers, a high-tech (for its time) caper made in a post-cold war, pre-internet world when virtual reality was in its infancy and fears surrounding cyberwarfare were mounting.

Martin Bishop (Redford) is the head of an Ocean’s Eleven-style group of cyber experts who are working to expose security dangers faced by banks and corporations. After the team are approached by two supposed NSA officers threatening to reveal Bishop’s shady past, the group find themselves blackmailed into using their skills to uncover and retrieve an elusive black box.

Their investigation leads them to mathematician Dr Gunter Janek (Donal Logue), who has seemingly been paid off by the Russians and under the guise of a research project named Setec Astronomy (a rather clever anagram for “too many secrets”) and has developed a mathematical code that will universally render encrypted files obsolete. Under surveillance, Bishop and co learn that Janek has hidden this code on a computer chip within the black box. After retrieving the device, Bishop and his crew’s curiosity gets the better of them, so they plug in the chip to their office computers during their post-mission celebrations. The device they’ve been hired to retrieve is capable of unscrambling access codes to every major computer system across the world – the ultimate codebreaker.

The film is bursting with Oscar winners and nominees. Starring alongside Redford in his team of hacktivists are Sidney Poitier as ex-CIA officer Donald Crease; Dan Aykroyd as wide-eyed conspiracy theorist Darren “Mother” Roskow; and David Strathairn as Irwin “Whistler” Emery, a blind genius with a heightened sense of hearing that proves invaluable to the group. River Phoenix rounds out the likable team as the reserved, socially awkward tech wizard Carl Arbogast – a role that was something of a departure for the then 21-year-old heartthrob. Bishop’s ex-girlfriend Liz Ogilvy (Mary McDonnell) is mercifully not sidelined as just another love interest, but included as a participant in the gang’s mission.

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Sneakers is a hybrid of genres – part-thriller, part-heist caper, part-buddy cop movie. It’s more cerebral than action-oriented, and Bishop and his gang rely on their wits over clever gadgetry to achieve their goals. The director, Phil Alden Robinson, inserts moments of levity into the serpentine plot – cue the team doing a celebratory dance to Aretha Franklin’s Chain of Fools, or Redford slipping and falling as he tries to slide across a bank counter during a break-in.

River Phoenix, Robert Redford, Dan Aykroyd and Sidney Poitier
The crack team of hacktivists: River Phoenix, Robert Redford, Dan Aykroyd and Sidney Poitier. Photograph: Ronald Grant

A key addition to Sneakers’ creative arsenal is heard and not seen. James Horner (later known for his orchestral compositions on blockbusters including Titanic and Avatar) composed the film’s minimalist score, bringing tension and propulsion to the hacking scenes.

Sneakers is all about secrets – who’s got them, who wants them, who’s willing to share them, and the lengths someone might go to reveal them. In a cautionary speech given by Bishop’s ideological adversary Cosmo (Ben Kingsley) in the film’s climax, he declares the world isn’t run by weapons, energy or money: “It’s not about who’s got the most bullets – it’s about who controls the information.” What we see, hear, how we work, what we think – it’s all about the data.

Sneakers is set in a world before Google, Facebook and smartphones, and, despite being nearly 30 years old, its concerns about privacy and the moral ambiguity over access to personal and corporate information is chillingly prescient.