The People We Used to Be: On Sneakers and Being Young and Dumb

illustration by Tom Ralston

Robert Redford is doing what any man in any half-decent action movie does: He is running toward an object—in this case, a bank counter shrouded under the cover of darkness—with no intention of slowing down, of being practical, of moving around it or looking for an opening to go through it. No, Robert Redford is going to go over it, just like the guy ahead of him has done, bounding over the counter effortlessly, with the kind of clean and confident execution—knees pulled up high, all “look ma no hands”—that can only be afforded to the very young and limber. Redford, though, keeps running, straight into the barrier before toppling clumsily over it.

“We’re getting too old for this,” he grumbles to Sidney Poitier. Neither one is a young man anymore. Their bodies are soft and stiff, their faces weathered (though still undeniably handsome—this is Robert Redford and Sidney Poitier we’re talking about here). Redford needs a hand to help get up; he’s no longer Butch Cassidy, or Hubbell Gardiner, or even Roy Hobbs. In the fourth decade and third act of his career by Sneakers (1992), Redford is an old man.

Sneakers is a film about a lot of things: ever-advancing modern technology, personal privacy in the earliest days of the digital age, still-frosty international relations of the post-Cold War era, guys being dudes, the ways in which the American government—to put it broadly—sucks.

 But it’s also a movie about age.

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We learn through the film’s opening prologue that Martin Bishop (Redford) did something stupid twenty-odd years ago when he was young and dumb. And, look, who amongst us has not done something stupid when we were young and dumb? In Martin’s case, it was hacking the Federal Reserve Banking Network with his college buddy, Cosmo, for counter-culture kicks. A little money is shifted from the Republican Party to the Black Panthers; President Nixon makes a donation to the National Association to Legalize Marijuana. All just fun and games, of course. The thought that they could be caught and held accountable for their actions is dismissed with so much hubris that it’s no wonder both men are surprised when feds descend upon the scene. Martin gets away, the gift of timing—having lost a bet to go for pizza in the dead of the snowy night—on his side. His friend doesn’t have the same luck. 

The thing about being young and dumb is that most of us will cheat death and consequences and escape from the mistakes of our youth unscathed, or without any serious harm. But some of us will not. Martin had mistakenly spent the past twenty years thinking he was in the camp of the former. Sure, he has had to assume a new identity. And, yes, you get the idea that leading a ragtag security ops firm—they can’t afford to employ a typist, they screen their clients by their shoes—is the fate he has resigned himself to, rather than the apex of his potential. But at least he’s surrounded himself by men who he can call friends, men who aren’t too dissimilar from him, even if he can’t tell them precisely how.

Outsiders litter the dismal San Francisco office of Martin Bishop & Associates. None of these men are here by choice so much as they are by circumstance. There’s Donald Crease (Poitier), a man kicked out of the CIA after 22 years (“for a personality conflict”); Darren “Mother” Roskow (Dan Aykroyd), an electronics technician fired for being a conspiracy theorist; Irwin “Whistler” Emery (David Straithairn), a blind tech wiz who got into trouble tapping phone lines; and Carl Arbogast (River Phoenix), a teenage hacker who landed on the team’s radar when they caught him in the act. They’re all misfits, cast-offs, and has-beens. Men who, dare I say it, have not failed up but instead have mostly fucked around and found themselves booted to the outskirts—professionally, at least—past the point of rehabilitation, with no one else who would accept them the way they do each other. Their glory days are in the past; even young Carl, a kid hanging around a crew of men all old enough to be his father, seems frozen in time. No respectable workforce would have them, so they’re here, together, stringing together small-time jobs and hanging out in their big, empty office. “It’s a living,” Martin shruggingly explains to a bank teller cutting him a check for a recent job. “Not a very good one,” she replies. 

But the past comes back to haunt us all. A pair of supposed NSA officers approach Martin with a job: He and his men must recover a “black box” a mathematician is supposedly developing for the Russian government. When he hesitates, they reveal their upper hand: They know his secret history. They can either turn him in, or, he can help them and they can let him go.  

Martin thinks a fairly simple job is what it will take to clear his name. A heist is what got him into trouble all those years ago, and now a heist is what’s going to get him out. But it’s never that simple. Not just because the project seems suspicious from the jump—all those red flags and practical concerns and questions about what, exactly, this device does and who it’s for that go unanswered, not to mention an absurdly large payout—but because we can’t just undo the things we did when we were young and stupid. We cannot expect that we can run away, change our names, change our lives, do one silly little good deed, and be better. Erase the record of it ever happening. The past is always going to catch up with us, and the older we get, the harder it is to outrun. Our young dumb selves are always waiting for us, lurking in the air vents, crouching under the stairwell, hanging just around the corner. 

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I realize, of course, that saying all of this makes Sneakers sound terribly serious, which it is, sometimes, but mostly it isn’t. It’s a Sunday afternoon kind of a movie, the kind of lighthearted caper that walked so Soderbergh’s Ocean’s trilogy could run, a film that is just as much about a good hang as it is a good heist. (Look no further than a goofy, celebratory party scene featuring a montage of the Sneakers dancing to Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools.”) The stakes become higher than the characters anticipated, but only by happenstance; it’s clear their situation is more stumbled into than a regular occurrence. There’s no sweaty monologuing about their responsibility for the state of the world, no superhuman set pieces; every action feels like it could reasonably be done by a normal, middle-aged guy who isn’t a trained stuntman in possession of a certain kind of celluloid death wish. They’re trying to save the day, but in a well-I-guess-I-have-to sort of way. Really, when you get down to it, they’re mostly just trying to save their own asses. 

Sneakers is the height of “just guys being dudes” cinema, and the dudes rule: Each has their own distinct personality, and their chemistry crackles with the kind of dynamic that comes easy to old friends. I mean this in the best way possible: It’s like a group of neighborhood dads (and the one random teen on the block who has no one else to hang out with) who shoot the shit and grill in the backyard on weekends decided to make a movie together. Sidney Poitier is tremendous—you don’t need me to tell you he’s good in practically everything—and subtly funny, even as the no-nonsense straight man. Dan Aykroyd, a man whose Wikipedia has an entire section dedicated to his beliefs in the paranormal, is pitch-perfect as Mother, lending the conspiracy theorist a lovable weirdo energy. David Strathairn is a dry delight; like every Strathairn role, I feel like it’s the movie’s flaw not to feature about 12% more of him. It isn’t hard to see why River Phoenix was the height of teen cool; here, he oozes a certain kind of well-read, smirky-smiled, rebellious charm. And then there’s Mary McDonnell—a crime to mention her last, but alas—who, as Redford’s love interest gets the distinctly rare opportunity to actually do something. Where countless other films would sideline her to play the role of doe-eyed damsel in distress or the girl whose sole purpose is to fuck some confidence into the hero of the film, Sneakers makes Liz one of the guys, just as conniving and calculating and in on the game as the rest of them.

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The past never really dies, and in Sneakers, that’s literal. The entire deal was a grift, and Martin was an easy target. Those men weren’t NSA agents; they were goons of Cosmo, who it turns out is very much alive after the mob faked his death for him in prison in exchange for his services handling their money. The adult Cosmo (Ben Kingsley with a little ponytail) is just as haunted by his young, dumb self as Martin, just in a different way. While Martin has spent the past twenty years trying to escape the past, Cosmo has fantasized about keeping it alive. The black box, it turns out, is actually an all-powerful code breaker capable of breaking encryptions on any high-security computer system you can think of, from the Federal Reserve to the national power grid and the air traffic control system. It’s the ultimate bad guy tool, an instrument that can make an act of terrorism easy, and Martin just handed it off to Cosmo’s men. 

For Cosmo, though, the device isn’t an easy tool for violence so much as it is a time machine. With it in his possession, there’s no reason why it can’t be 1969 again. There’s no reason why he and Martin can’t bury the hatchet and pick up where they left off, be partners in crime again, commit bigger acts of larceny this time, do something so grand and spectacular it could actually change the world. “I might even be able to crash the whole damn system,” Cosmo proposes. “No more rich people, no more poor people. Everybody’s the same. Isn’t it what we said we always wanted?” (Men will literally fake their own deaths, join underground organized crime circuits, set up front corporations, commit abduction, murder, espionage, and treason—to name a few—for a chance to bond with their college buddies again instead of going to therapy!)

The older you get the harder it is to hold onto idealism. Cosmo wants everyone to be the same, but that’s just the thing: everybody isn’t the same. Martin knows that wrecking the system won’t lead to utopia; it will just create a new, worse scenario. The things we wanted and wished for and believed could come so easily, if only everyone else cared as much as we did, when we were kids fade with age. We grow older, we gain experience, we become disillusioned. Practicality takes precedence; consequences are real and no longer imagined; we realize that there is no magic wand, no single action that can fix all that is wrong with our world. We have to do the long, hard work ourselves—all the boring, pragmatic stuff like voting and volunteering, being kind to our neighbors and involved in our community. 

I am not saying that the raging desire to burn down the entire rotten system is wrong. On the contrary, I don’t know how you don’t look at the world—now or then—and not think that it is in need of such drastic change. What I am saying is that there is a distinct difference between wanting to destroy things and genuinely believing that destruction is the answer. To genuinely believe that a whole new rotten system won’t spring up in the aftermath, that people won’t always find a way to establish social hierarchies, that it could be possible, in this state of capitalism’s reign, to fully bleed the ideology from our DNA is to be either very young or willfully ignorant. Martin knows this. Cosmo isn’t unlike many technofascists of today, “disruptors” who break systems under the guise of democracy but really in assertions of power. They’re agents of chaos, not change, out to remake the world in their own image.  

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It isn’t enough for Sneakers to stop with just one heist; there has to be a second one. What Martin Bishop and Associates stole for the wrong hands, they must steal back for the right ones. The heists Martin and his men concoct are done in the name of protecting the country—in a way that feels more genuinely concerned with the personal safety of its individual citizens than most generic, right-wing flavored, “patriotic” save-the-day movie tropes—and being good guys. Well, good guys, yes, but not selfless guys; they have their own selfish needs to think about. Without the device, they risk going to jail for espionage. With it, they can be let off the hook for their role in its theft and, particularly in Martin’s case, get their lives back.

This second heist is about stealing back the mistakes you made, in the far or recent past, as if those mistakes could all be contained in a small black box, as if it could all be that easy. It’s in Sneakers’ best interest that the final heist is far from easy. Martin has to enlist help from his estranged ex, Liz, who has to not only date a computer nerd but pretend to have a nice time with him to mooch his key card. They have to figure out how to break into not only a highly secure building, but from there into an even more secure room in which the box is kept, then figure out how to raise that room’s temperature to 98º for Redford to move through at no faster than two inches per second to avoid setting off the motion detectors. It’s hard, facing the past. It’s hard, getting older. It’s hard, trying to steal an all-powerful code-breaker back from a bad guy. Sneakers knows this. 

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The joy of Sneakers is that it is an ensemble piece, yes, but it is also a glorious, easy-going star vehicle for an aging Robert Redford. There are smarter films in which Redford has starred, funnier and better ones, too. You don’t need me to tell you that Three Days of the Condor better nails the paranoia; or that The Candidate has funnier, more subversive criticism of American politics; or that The Sting is a sexier heist. But the more time progresses, the more I’m drawn to late-career Redford, in a string of films that began with 1986’s Legal Eagles and continued through 2001’s Spy Game.

Free of the pretty-boy, leading man stigma—and having found self-fulfillment in his work as a director—Redford becomes increasingly more laid back on screen. There’s a shaggy dog-like charisma he brings to Sneakers; it’s like watching a full body unclench. He’s the elder statesman now—he wears his reading glasses proudly!—but he’s here for a good time, and appears to be doing just that. There’s a pattern to these films, a last grasp at the past, to be sure. Echos of Three Days of the Condor reverberate in Sneakers; a sort of Out of Africa “man of nature meant to open a rich, cosmopolitan woman’s heart and mind” vibe to The Horse Whisperer; The Last Castle isn’t far off from Brubaker; at 60, he plays the heartthrob opposite 38-year-old Michelle Pfeiffer in Up Close and Personal (a movie I know is trash but love anyway). None of them are remarkably great films, and many feel more like attempts at reliving the past than thoughtfully revisiting it. Still, Redford brings a wisened, softer approach, a more lived-in feel to his performances; we, the audience, are not the only ones well-acquainted with these people he used to be.

They say the older you get, the more yourself you become. Part of me wonders if, in Redford’s first decade or so of being an “old man” (forgive me), he finally felt like the young, charismatic characters he so often played, allowing him to inhabit them so effortlessly. The other part wonders if I’ve just fallen prey to the smoke and mirrors of Hollywood, if I’m willfully ignoring the industry’s desperate white-knuckled grip on the past that denied Redford the opportunity to play age-appropriate roles and insisted on his staying the same. Perhaps that’s why Sneakers is the best of the bunch; it’s the rare film in which Redford’s age not only isn’t ignored, but is an essential part of the plot. 

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When I was young and dumb myself, I kept a photo of Robert Redford in my high school locker. Somewhere between the ages of 12 and 14, my sweet little TCM-pilled self fell in love with a man who was old enough to be my grandfather. (Although, if it’s any kind of defense, he was anything but grandfatherly in the films in which I first discovered him.) It should have been the presence of a far more age-appropriate River Phoenix that drew me to Sneakers, but it was Redford in his mid-life handsome glory that brought me there, and Redford that has kept me coming back. Several misguided celebrity crushes of puberty have died with age, as they should; my love affair with Redford is one of the few that refuse to quit.

Sneakers came easy at that age. It was a lighthearted little hang with the boys. I laughed. I gripped the edge of my seat. The most intelligent thing I could have said about why I loved it was probably simply “Robert Redford is hot and it is fun.” Watching it, I had a nice time. I still do, only now I have a little bit more empathy for the characters I never had before. I am still young, yes, but no longer young, if you know what I mean. I have no desire to cling to the past, to ignore the fact that I’m getting older just the same as everyone else. I have no desire to be the young, dumb self I once was, although I know I still am in some ways, and that it is ill-advised to lose touch with that person entirely. But I get what it’s like to have friendships whose endings are for the best, to look back on your past with a shake of your head, to try to do all the things you used to do with the nagging feeling that, well, we’re getting too old for this.