"There's a war out there, old friend. A world war. And it's not about who's got the most bullets. It's about who controls the information. What we see and hear, how we work, what we think... it's all about the information!
-Cosmo (Ben Kingsley)
In this day and age, computers are as much a part of our everyday lives as cars, televisions, or any common technological device. And as computers connect more and more people around the world every day, there are also more opportunities for hackers. Hackers, as you probably know, are people who use computers to find back ways into restricted areas of the internet. Some of the world's most famous hackers have done significant damage to many established world governments and financial institutions. But hacking is hardly a new phenomenon, and it was already an infamous enough subject to attract the interest of writers Walter F. Parkes, Lawrence Lasker (both of Wargames fame), and Phil Alden Robinson (writer and director of Field of Dreams) back in the early 80's. After several years and many more drafts, the group finally got offered the chance to make the movie, called Sneakers, in 1992.
Robert Redford stars as Martin Bishop, a man who began his hacking career in the late 60's, using university computers to make the Republican Party give massive donations to the Black Panthers. His activities did not go unnoticed, and he becomes wanted by the FBI. Going underground, he reappears some years later as a white hat, someone who gets paid to break into security systems to discover their flaws. And he's not alone. He's got a ragtag team of misfits who work for him. They are Donald Crease (Sidney Poitier), Whistler (David Strathairn), Mother (Dan Akroyd), and Carl (River Phoenix). Two NSA agents approach Martin and blackmail him into stealing a device being created by a Russian mathematician. The group does so, with the help of Martin's ex-wife Liz (Mary McDonnell). However, once they have possession of it, the team realizes exactly what it can do: Bypass any system of computer encryption on earth. Realizing the magnitude of what they have in their hands, the group must decide who, if anyone, should get the box. At the same time, outside groups are trying to take the decision out of Martin's hands.
Sneakers is a truly underrated film. While it came out not all that long ago, it's been mostly forgotten in the wake of the post-Pulp Fiction explosion. And that's a shame, because the movie has so much going for it. To start is the airtight script. I would imagine that most scripts that get worked on for over ten years would lose all sense of spontaneity or freshness, but to their credit, all three writers kept their eye on the prize all the way through. What they did do away with was every possible alternative to what's in the final piece, so they knew whether or not an outside suggestion would work before the third party even got a chance to finish their sentence. The film is expertly paced, with each event unfolding from the last, always making the audience wonder what's going to happen next. It also does an excellent job of balancing humor with nail-biting tension.
And then there's the cast. Oh, what a cast it is. To start, you've got Robert Redford. Redford has always been known for his effortless charm, but he's never been better at it than he is here. I'll take his performance in Sneakers over Butch Cassidy or The Sting any day. Then you've got Sidney Poitier, who brings class and distinction to every role he plays. And here he gets to have some fun, which we don't often get to see. Mary McDonnell is tremendous as Martin's ex. It's clear she still cares for him and his whole team, but does not want to get completely mixed up in what she sees as immature shenanigans. And Ben Kinglsey is tremendous as Cosmo, in a noteworthy role that I won't say too much about for those who have not yet seen the picture.
The rest of the cast flesh things out. Dan Akroyd is actually rather understated. River Phoenix doesn't get a ton of screen time, but when he does it reminds us what a tragedy his loss was. David Straithairn is frequently hilarious as the blind Whistler. Grounded For Life's Donal Logue makes a brief but memorable appearance as a mathematician. And James Earl Jones is an absolute pleasure in his cameo role. Everyone on screen is absolutely pitch perfect, and there's not a false moment for any of them.
Sneakers does feature a lot of technology that was cutting edge for 1992, but is wholly laughable in 2007. It's to the film's credit that the utterly obsolete technology does not in any way hinder the ability of the film to entertain or spread its message in the present. In fact, the relatively low-end technology used in the picture make it feel all the more prescient as we get smaller, faster, sleeker, and more effective machines. Cosmo's speech quoted above accurately predicts the world as it would be during the Information Age. Now, more than ever, it is all about the information.
The HD DVD:
Universal presents Sneakers in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 in a VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer. Universal has gotten a bad rap recently for several poor catalogue releases, and I feared the worst for this disc. Luckily, the picture is very solid. Flesh tones and color reproduction is very good. There's not tons of detail, but this is due to the shallow composition of the film, clearly a hold over from late 80's film styles. Still, this transfer does a good job of creating a film-like that suffers from very few source or compression defects. Could it be more eye catching? I'm sure it could. But what we get here works.
Universal provides both 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby Digital Plus mixes for Sneakers. For a movie where one of the major characters is obsessed with sound, the mixes here sure are disappointing. The surrounds don't get nearly the kind of use they should, and the few directional effects are not well integrated. The mix is serviceable, but nothing special.
Universal ports over the few supplements they had from the last DVD release of the film. None are in high definition.
Commentary with Writer/Director Phil Alden Robinson, Writers Lawrence Lasker and Walter Parkes, and Director of Photography John Lindley: Director Robinson dominates this track, with a few complementary comments from the rest of the cast. Robinson has plenty of interesting things to say, though, so this isn't necessarily a problem.
The Making of Sneakers: Most of the participants from the commentary come back for this half-hour making of, which surprisingly still allows for a lot of new information. There are also period interviews with the crew members.
Sneakers is a brilliant film that doesn't get near the amount of recognition it deserves. It's funny and tense, with wonderful performances from every member of the cast. This HD DVD, while not a massive improvement over the DVD, offers better picture quality, which, combined with the movie itself, makes this one Highly Recommended.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.