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‎Cracking the Code: Sneakers at 30


Sneakers is one of the most fun and often under appreciated geek movies out there. Hackers got some points for including the Hacker Manifesto but was over the top to the point of comical. Sneakers captured the mindset, the vibe, and some of the mechanics.. a bunch of slightly odd guys driven by curiosity and skepticism.

The fact that they got Redford, Poitier, Aykroyd, and many other greats made it shine.

Edit: And from the article, just learned that the screenplay was written by Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes who also wrote War Games.


I have a younger partner who does infosec - she's never seen Hackers and I skimmed it, thinking about showing it to her. It's fun, but it's aged poorly to the point that it'd be too cringe to show her. Sneakers, in contrast, has aged really well. It's the only film I've seen that "gets" the hacker ethos, its culture and history... and has relatively realistic depictions of hacking (a lot of social engineering, research and a bit of computer hacking).

A lot of fantastic actors, and a real treat to see one of the handful of films River Phoenix did (taken far too soon).


Sneakers is an unambiguously fantastic thriller with god tier cast.

But Hackers is a classic too and always meant as over the top fun. I don't think it's aged badly, it was ludicrous at the time too. It's now a period piece that captures the imagination of the moment. If you can't find joy in people hacking while roller blading as The Prodigy blasts man... I don't know, shame. The 90's sure feel like a lot more fun than today. There are a lot of things that work in the film and have stayed with me over the decades. Whether it's Joey at AA for computer addiction, everyone geeking out over a laptop, "ugly red book that won't fit on the shelf" or "It's in that place I put that thing one time".


I absolutely love Sneakers, but I think you're writing Hackers off too easily - my experience is that it's widely loved within the infosec community, not because it's accurate in any way (it is extremely obviously not) but because it captures what people want hacking to be. You should absolutely watch it together, and if she hates it you should just blame me.




No way, definitely watch Hackers! It's actually a really great capture of the kinda wild computing/hacker culture of the 90's, super on-point aesthetically. Plus the plot is pretty fun. It's a super cult classic for a reason, and gets so many things right. The cheesiness is actually not too bad and IMO a key part of the charm. There are some really cool scenes too.


I showed Hackers to my girlfriend a few years ago. I am a software developer who has seen it multiple times. She isn't into computers at all and had never seen it before. But we both really enjoyed it. It's a fun movie that fantastical enough to be fun and engaging while grounded enough to be believable. The less-realistic parts didn't break the immersion for her but were a source of amusement for me that didn't ruin the overall experience


Hackers is ok. If you want to re-calibrate your cringe-o-meter with respect to movies that involve "hacking", see Swordfish (


I own it on DVD and just watched the special feature a couple weeks ago. It was really interesting to hear them talk about the research for the script, including getting Prof Adelman (the A in RSA) to consult on the lecture the mathematician was giving, and even to draft slides for him to present, which were not used in favor of projecting a sea of equations on a white background

There are other cool tidbits in there, they got an phreaker (sp?, phone hacker) who had done time in prison to consult as well. His nickname irl was Captain Crunch, and when they sort through the guy's garbage (the guy who's office they need to break into, played by the same actor as Action Jack Barker in Silicon Valley), they pull out a captain crunch box


The term you're looking for is "phone phreak". There's another reference to John Draper (Captain Crunch) early in the movie. When they are playing Scrabble, one of the words is SCRUNCHY - and the S and Y are separated from the rest of the word at first, so you see CRUNCH.

John was also a technical consultant for the film and appears in the documentary on the DVD.

For those who don't have it yet, I definitely recommend getting the DVD for the special features.

(The cheapest seller is GRUV which happens to be Universal Pictures.)


I’ve always seen “phreaker” on 80’s era BBSes. This is the first time I’ve seen “phone phreak”. Maybe regional differences in us old school nerds?


I've bought from GRUV once, it was an obvious bootleg so never again.


Sneakers and Wargames were in the position when studios had the desire to not dumb down the plot or the fact that since computers were so new that they could be introduced in such a manner and be a compelling part of the narrative. Even when Hackers had people from the 2600 magazine consulted for production you can see that they weren't really listened to. The only really popular shows that stressed realism in hacking / software were Person of Interest and Mr Robot.


Well, PoI said some of the right things, but everything was too easy, frankly. So, I'd say just Mr. Robot.


POI and Mr. robot's hacking situations were both too easy but relative to Mr Robot yes POI was extremely more easy. I was more speaking to technical accuracy that was actually in the writing of the script (but for POI it was glossed over how to make the AI work and Mr Robot just made good situations that someone could actually do). But, at least POI and Mr Robot were trying.



The other fun fact is Sneakers that is beloved by both an entire generation of the IT security and intelligence/signals community .

For a lot of us it was another nudge into both the blue and red sides of the security equation.


> The fact that they got Redford, Poitier, Aykroyd, and many other greats made it shine.

Reminder that Poitier died fairly recent: January 6, 2022 (at 94).



Sneakers and War Games (and also Tron) are great.

We're running a consensus protocol bounty challenge for TigerBeetleDB inspired by them [1], with our distributed database simulator also being called The VOPR.



I've been looking for the pool on the roof since I was about 8 or 9 years old.



Memories of the “Sneakers” Shoot (2012) - - Jan 2022 (198 comments)

Sneakers: Robert Redford, River Phoenix nerd out in 1992’s prescient caper - - Dec 2021 (7 comments)

Sneakers (1992), the Film - - Feb 2021 (2 comments)

Tool Recreating the “Decrypting Text” Effect Seen in the Movie “Sneakers” - - May 2016 (54 comments)

Sneakers - movie about pen testing, crypto/nsa, espionage, and deception (1992) - - Aug 2013 (5 comments)

What it was like shooting the movie Sneakers - - Sept 2012 (46 comments)

Sneakers (Film, 1992) - - July 2010 (1 comment)

Joybubbles: the blind phreaker whom Whistler was based off of in Sneakers - - June 2010 (1 comment)


Thanks for the list!

I get the feeling dang has a sweet spot for Sneakers, too ;)


I think if you draw a venn diagram of 'Hacker News users' and 'people who loved Sneakers' it would be close to a circle, at least beyond a certain age.


How do you keep doing this? How do you pop up in every thread? :D


Anyone have a really old copy of Sneakers (like on laserdisc)? I noticed in the background of the bluray transfer there is this asiacrypt poster and I wondered if it was composited in later transfers over something else, as I think the conference would have been too late for the movie production.

I think sneakers still holds the record for the best number theory jargon in movie history:

"While the number-field sieve is the best method currently known, there exists an intriguing possibility for a far more elegant approach. Here we would find a composition of extensions, each Abelian over the rationals, and hence contained in a single cyclotomic field. Using the Artin map, we might induce homomorphisms from the principal orders in each of these fields that z by f z. These maps could then be used to combine splitting information from all the fields... this in turn would require the standard Kummer extensions that nontorsion form of the Jacobians of the Fermat curves gives rise to. It would be a breakthrough of Gaussian proportions and allow us to acquire the solution in a dramatically more efficient manner. Now, I should emphasize that such an approach is purely theoretical. So far, no one has been able to accomplish such constructions, yet."


1) Then Donald Logue got famous, and I'd be the idiot yelling "that's Gunter Janek!" at every episode of Grounded for Life.

2) I can't look at that screenshot and not hear "I leave message here on service but you do not call"

3) RSA's Adleman was the science advisor for the movie, so I'd guess he snuck in the Asiacrypt poster from the beginning


Donal Logue also played Kevin Mitnick's friend in Takedown.

(Also in that scene, a cameo by the real Tsutomu Shimomura)


Donal Logue was also Jimmy the Cab driver in a bizarre series of MTV commercials.


I have it on Laserdisc and will definitely look for this next time I watch!

Edit: had to check. Yup, its there on LaserDisc...


AWESOME! Thank you!


This word salad from Janek and Harry Dean Stanton's recitation of "The Repo Code" in Repo Man are some of the two best rifs on word play I've heard in my lifetime. I've never seen the full text of Janek's speech - thank you!


I went to quote it at one point and the only copies I found online were truncated and wrong... So I rewatched the movie just to transcribe it. :)


I've got Sneakers on DVD and the asiacrypt '91 poster is there.


The Internet Archive has the original press kit preserved - as a virtual floppy disk, including an (easy) password guessing to access some content. See here:


... when you accessed the "about", it says (or better said) 30 years ago: "... Just remember that, in today's complex world, having no more secrets can be just as hazardous as having too many ...". Yup, ahead of its time. Nice.




Here is a fun article by David July, who tracked down some of the filming locations. It has some nice photos of the iconic PlayTronics building at 400 National Way in Simi Valley:

He did misidentify the bridge the white van drove over. It's the Dumbarton, not the San Mateo, and they are driving in the correct direction. (From SF you would take 101 to Marsh or Willow and get on the Dumbarton from there.)

A sad note: The PlayTronics building was converted to an Amazon distribution center a few years ago, and the entire front of the building was torn down and made into loading docks.

I suppose it is ironic that I watched Sneakers on Amazon Prime!


IMDB has a list of filming locations, as it does for most movies. Including the correct bridge.


Nice! It's funny, of all the times I've visited IMDB I somehow never noticed this feature. Thank you for pointing it out.


IMDb is owned by Amazon.


> It’s also not difficult to imagine Bishop as an older version of the more principled protagonists he played in Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men.

That's a fun idea. If only the movie ran for just a bit longer and mega-casual assassin Max Von Sydow and spooky garage conversation informant Hal Holbrook could've been in on things somehow.

"You've got to follow...the macguffin!"

(Also this clock tower thing...yeah I admit I never noticed, loved the van and mustache though)

A fun read, thanks op!


I watched both sneakers and three days of the condor recently. Sneakers is an OK Hollywood movie but I fail to see the reverence it has. The technical details of the physical security systems are nonsense.

Condor is a better movie. It still suffers a bit around the Condor Cathy relationship.

While Sneakers is make believe, condor resonates today. The speech about oil is pretty spot on. The whole idea of releasing to the papers is a movie trope, but the antagonist casts doubt, “will they publish the story” We know today that the press is a propaganda arm of the government and the answer is probably no. They will not publish the story.


> The technical details of the physical security systems are nonsense.

Which parts are nonsense?

The details of the "man trap" (including the voiceprint) are straight out of a late-80s Computer Security book I found at a garage sale last month:

There's another section of the same book that describes ultrasonic motion detectors that work more or less like the ones in Cosmo's office.

All of the other details I can think of offhand make me think the filmmakers did their research at least enough to get to the level of "it's plausible that someone would sell a security product that worked this way even if no one actually did in 1992", but I work in information security, not physical security.

FWIW, I'm ordering Three Days of the Condor right now. Thanks for mentioning it.


As a random aside, Day of the Condor is Kevin Mitnick’s favorite movie. Mitnick was probably the most famous hacker in the world at the time Sneakers was being cast.


That's really cool. Turner's phone company background was a very interesting facet of his characterization. I'm sure it was to many a Sneakers-like experience.

Personally I liked this factor, and the Higgins character, enough that I outlined some fanfic in which Higgins quits the agency and convinces Turner to help him out on various freelance jobs. I thought they made a very rationally-sympathetic pair in the film.


The film score is a James Horner masterpiece:

It's very interesting because it predates the modern consensus that hacker movie music should be electronic. If it were made today it would be full of synths, but back then nobody knew what a hacker movie was supposed to sound like. So you get lots of choir vocals, strings, and piano. It's beautiful!


I loved the bit about trying to guess the password from the video, and nobody being able to do it, and the blind guy hearing the sound over and over and figuring out that it's in the box on the desk. And the audience realizes, "Hey, we were so busy looking at stuff that we didn't listen."


Sneakers is just a training movie on how a red team should do a pentest.


It's the social engineering that makes it timeless, but the A-list acting makes it watchable. (Plus Stephen Tobolowsky's ad-libs.)


Indeed! The best of which is Redford trying to get in the office cumbersomely holding a cake and balloons while Phoenix comes in to frazzle the guard.




I'm fairly certain my life would have gone in an entirely different direction had my mom and I not decided - rather randomly - to go see this movie in theaters one weekend when I was 11.


True for me, too. I was 20 then and undecided between lawyer and computer science. Easier choice after seeing the movie.


Heh. I saw it at a younger though still impressionable age, and just absolutely loved (and continue to love) that movie, and somehow wound up going down that other route.

No regrets, though. Plus at least I can do a pitch-perfect recitation of the spliced together voice authorization prompt.


same re. voice id recitation :)


Love it. For me that movie was TRON. I was 6(?) years old and I knew computers were for me.


Yeah this was absolutely the case for me, except with Hackers. Same age, I think. Good times :) Maybe not entirely different direction, but it had a huge effect on me and was downright inspiring.


You're not the only one.




An excellent film, should be part of any computer science curriculum or at least some homework. Never noticed or knew that Hollywood went into such details with the "Easter eggs" back then so next time watching it will look out for them.

As also mentioned here, its up there with War Games, Tron and The Lawn Mower Man when considering the biological & chemical knowledge we have at our fingertips today.


One of the things I love about it, is that Sneakers has a mathematical consultant in its credits: Len Adleman. The "A" in RSA.