Sneakers is a comedy/cyber/caper released in 1992 and starring Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, Dan Ackroyd, and Ben Kingsley. It’s about a group of anti-authoritarian misfits who make a living by sneaking into businesses to test security and make recommendations for how the businesses can improve their security. As one woman tells Redford’s Martin Bishop, it’s not a very good way to make a living.
But then they are hired to steal a mysterious box, which turns out to be the ultimate code breaker. A box that contains the key to breaking the code of every encrypted computer system in existence. The project is called Setec Astronomy, which is an anagram for “Too Many Secrets” (Wikileaks, anyone?). Needless to say, nearly everyone wants it – Russia, NSA, mobsters, and Redford’s former friend and now turned mad genius Cosmo, played by Ben Kingsley.
I’ve always enjoyed this film and since I’ve recently been watching a lot of Sidney Poitier films, this seemed like the perfect choice for Film Music Central‘s “2nd Annual Remembering James Horner Blogathon.”
The score for Sneakers is actually quite unexpected. It has the usual tense, caper music that one expects for a caper, but he does something else rather unexpected. He elicits a sense of wonderment.
Listen to this clip when the group discover that the box is really a code breaker. As composer Nicholas Britell notes, “at first, we hear a simple yet catchy piano theme repeated over and over. As it continues repeating, a second piano line joins in as a partner to it. The music is quiet yet densely populated with short little piano notes. The music feels like a perfect counterpoint to what is taking place on-screen.” When they finally solve the mystery, the music, with its use of choir, takes on a sense of excitement, but also wonderment.
Britell describes it best. I really have little I can add to it.
Horner’s dense texture of uniform repeated notes feels like the “little bits of data,” the “ones and zeroes” that are at the heart of the film’s drama. Listening further to the piece in the “Setec Astronomy” scene, we see the music continue to develop: one, two, then three different pianos playing along simultaneously. As the characters get closer to deciphering the code, more and more musical elements join in: female choir, harp, strings, woodwinds, percussion. We really begin to feel viscerally the newfound power of these “little ones and zeroes.”
But I think there is also that sense of wonderment. Wonder at the world and what makes it up and what people can do. The wonderment and thrill of discovery. Cosmo argues that “it’s not about who has the most bullets. It’s about who has the most information…the world isn’t run by weapons anymore, or energy, or money. It’s run by little ones and zeroes, little bits of data. It’s all just electrons.”
But with Horner’s music, information, little bits of data, ones and zeroes are beautiful. Like wondering at the DNA that makes up the world. I like it because it adds a dimension that would otherwise be lacking in the film if the score had been more conventional.
Of course, once they realize the power of what they have, the music becomes much more frightening. Jumping around, in the lower registers of the piano, agitated, menacing.
But here is the lovely music for when Cosmo and Bishop – friends as young men – see each other last. That lovely, mournful saxophone. Where Cosmo cannot kill his friend. It makes you think how lonely Cosmo has been all these years, in prison, working for mobsters. Only Bishop, he feels, can understand him and what he wants to achieve. And Bishop, who feels partly responsible for getting Cosmo in trouble in the first place.
I mentioned that sound in general is important in the film. One of the group, Whistler (David Straitairn), is blind and so notices sounds and conversation while the others are caught up in visuals. When Bishop is knocked unconscious and stuffed in a trunk and driven somewhere, Whistler later helps him track down where the car went by tracking the sounds Bishop heard. The sounds of a car driving over concrete bumps on a bridge, cackling geese (which Bishop thought sounded like a cocktail party).
And then there’s the wonderful voice of James Earl Jones. We first hear him over the phone, but he makes an appearance at the very end and is marvelous. The tonal shades he can put into his voice never ceases to amaze me. He has presence, but his voice has presence, also.
If you have never seen Sneakers, I definitely recommend it. A great cast – I always liked Sidney Poitier as the ex-CIA Crease, who is extremely security conscious and is always being driven nuts by Dan Ackroyd’s paranoid conspiracy theories. I also enjoy Mary McDonnell, who’s bemused good humor with Bishop and the entire eccentric group and their escapades mirrors our own. As she remarked when Bishop suddenly bursts out with “Setec Astronomy!”
“I just love it when a man says that to me.”
But I also really appreciate the soundtrack by James Horner. It fits the mood of the film, enhances it, but is never just dully predictable.
I want to thank Film Music Central for hosting this great event! It was wonderful to have the opportunity to give the score of a film the attention it deserves….especially a score by James Horner. Be sure to read the other posts from the blogathon for days 1, 2, and 3.
I’ll end with this clip from the film. The music seems to positively delight in the ingenuity of solving what appears to be an impossible task…via sound.