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Espionage-a-Trois: The Secret Sneakers Trilogy

By  · Published on January 5th, 2017

Junkfood Cinema doesn’t trust anyone from 1992.

“One cannot trust anybody these days” ‐ quips a young computer hacker named Cosmo in the 1992 film Sneakers.

His remark is ironic and self-serving as he has just tricked his good friend Martin Bishop into getting them some pizza during an especially long session of electronically (and illegally) siphoning cash from various political entities and corporations. The film jumps ahead several years after this prologue and the older version of Cosmo is played by Sir Ben Kingsley. The elder Martin? Robert Redford.

The latter piece of casting, coupled with Cosmo’s quote and the film’s thematic content lend credence to the theory that Sneakers, an underappreciated thriller with an astoundingly stacked cast, does not exist in a vacuum, but instead is the middle of a very interesting triple feature. To adequately establish this fictive trilogy, we have to go back three days…or rather, back to Three Days.

One of the greatest espionage films ever made is 1975’s Three Days of the Condor. In it, Robert Redford plays a CIA analyst named Joseph Turner tasked with reading books, newspapers, and magazines to look for secret meanings. This is fitting as we will now look into the hidden connections (or in some cases conspicuous connections) between three of Redford’s films. One day Joseph returns from lunch to find his entire staff murdered. He calls in to report it, but it turns out his colleagues were killed at the behest of CIA higher-ups to conceal a rogue plot within the agency.

What made Three Days of the Condor so remarkable was that despite being made just before the second wave of the Cold War, Russia was not the antagonist of this espionage tale. The mid-70s saw the entrance of more foreign powers into the fray; fracturing the two-contestant battlefield and muddying the notion that America had only one enemy. As if acknowledging this newfound nebulousness, in Condor, the enemy lurking in the shadows of the movie is our own intelligence agencies. If our government is also out to get us, then Cosmo was right, no one can be trusted.

This feeds directly into the second film of the trilogy, and this week’s Junkfood Cinema podcast subject: Sneakers. There are more than a few parallels between Three Days of the Condor and Sneakers, and many are entirely intentional. The prologue of Sneakers, with young Cosmo and Martin, seems an appropriate antagonistic response from a jaded Joseph Turner to actively revolt (albeit in petty fashion at first) against his own government. The resulting police raid that puts Martin on the lam also feels apropos to a still-hunted Turner. Let us also not forget that the surnames “Martin” and “Bishop” were two causalities listed in the aftermath of the shooting that opens Three Days of the Condor. Martin Bishop is a not-so-subtle alias to evade capture.

Thematically, Sneakers teases the same notion as Condor. Martin’s fugitive status is a major motivation for his hesitance to see his security firm partner with the NSA. Pursuant to his character’s origins however is the fact that he harbors a longstanding general distrust of government. Sneakers then brilliantly teases the realization of Martin’s worst nightmares as it appears again he and his team have become pawns in a government shadow game. The third act twist (spoiler) not only subverts the very efficacy of the government, but also proves to Martin that he can betrayed by his former best friend just as easily as his country; complicating his already staggering trust issues.

So you can’t trust America and you can’t trust your friends? Wow, what a sticky wicket. Effectively that means neither neither systems nor individuals are trustworthy. How does one reconcile so tenuous a relationship with the world? One becomes a government agent with an unshakable loyalty to one’s protege. Enter Spy Game, Tony Scott’s phenomenal 2001 thriller that effectively wraps up the Three Films of the Condor.

It would be easy to imagine Martin Bishop, after his security firm’s successful tryout with the NSA, would have a credible reference to secure a job as a CIA operative; working within the system to protect the interests of the little guy over the interests of governments. After a successful career, on his way out the door towards retirement, Martin (or Nathan as he is designated by the CIA here), pulls a fast one on the agency to save his protege Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt) who has been captured and whom the CIA is ready to disavow rather than recover.

Tom…Bishop. So maybe not only is Brad Pitt’s character Redford’s protege, but perhaps also…secretly his son?

Wouldn’t that be the greatest prank young Tom Bishop could play on the government he cannot trust? No, it’s still donating money to the Black Panthers on behalf of the Republican party.

For as much information as we can reveal on Sneakers (without having to kill you), check out this week’s Junkfood Cinema podcast.

As a special treat, anyone who backs JFC on Patreon will have access to a weekly bonus episodes covering an additional cult movie, a new movie in theaters, or a mailbag episode devoted to your submitted questions! Have a couple bucks to throw in the hat, we’ll reward you!

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.