Chapter 13: Too Many Secrets

As the Internet began to take off, and "hacker mystique" began to hit the front pages of newspapers, Hollywood smelled blood in the water and started in with a whole slew of "hacker" movies and television shows. Almost to a one, these movies are roundly dismissed by hackers as ridiculous, either because they try too hard to be "1337" or because they just get it all wrong. A prime example of the former is Hackers which, despite a cool soundtrack and a decent cast, placed far too much emphasis on rollerblading, decades-old slang and improbable "walls of glass" computers. The latter is best exemplified by The Net, of which I need say nothing except "Sandra Bullock" to point out why this was just a huge mistake.

Even among those films and shows which are generally appreciated by those within the "Cyberpunk" and "hacker" worlds, there has typically been an admission that even the ones that got the attitude and "coolness" factor right still got it all wrong. The best example of this is Disney's Tron, which most hackers will laugh at in public while secretly hiding a worn-out VHS copy behind that stack of Mondo 2000 magazines beside the futon.

Much of the reason these films and shows typically fail to appeal to the audience they're trying to emulate is that it's really difficult to make it all exciting and real at the same time. Spend just ten minutes with someone raking passwords or running scripts and you'll see why it's difficult to portray it as anywhere near exciting on the big screen. Couple that with the fact that 99.99 percent of a real hacker's time is spent staring at a little 80 column white-on-black display window, and you can get a pretty good appreciation for why Hollywood hackers always have spiffy GUIs, cool headsets, shiny clothing and, yes, rollerblades.

Somehow, among the barrel of rotten apples, someone managed to make a good hacker movie. For those who know nothing about the world of hacking, it might seem a bit lame, lacking the shiny virtual-reality getup and the whiz-bang special effects as the hero zips through cyberspace. Netrunning, this is not. What it is, is a brilliant little movie that somehow, ten years after its release, still manages to capture the truth like no other movie to date--1992's Sneakers.

The cast list reads like a "Who's Who" among sought-after actors in Hollywood: Robert Redford as Bishop, Sidney Poitier as Crease, David Strathairn as Whistler, Dan Akroyd as Mother, River Phoenix as Carl, and Ben Kingsley as Cosmo (not to mention a walk-on by James Earl Jones as Bernard Abbott). It's hard to imagine poor acting from a crew as talented as this, and they truly deliver across the board.

Of course, good acting falls apart without a strong storyline, which is why it's another notch in the plus column for Sneakers: the story is simple at heart, yet complex enough to keep you guessing straight through till the end.

It all starts in December of 1969 on a college campus, with two college kids named Cosmo and Marty, a 40-column display, and a basket full of good intentions. Seems the duo are busily redistributing the wealth of nations to those who better deserve it, in true hacker fashion. Back then, there were no websites to deface, no DNS servers to bring down--just good old-fashioned acoustic couplers and Chinese take-out (some things never change). Of course, even here, we get the sense that there's a difference between Marty and Cosmo... a difference of philosophy.

                    Posit.  The Phone Company has too much

                    Oh, good one.


                    Uh, they're corrupt.  Result?

                    The system perpetuates itself at the expense
                    of the people.  Conclusion?

                    Ma Bell needs to donate some money.

                    We're going to change the world, Marty.

                    I just wish we could get course credit for

A flip of the coin later, fate chooses Marty to head out for more food, leaving Cosmo inside alone to take the rap as police officers storm the building. Fast-forward to 1992 (the present day), and we're back once again with Martin "Marty" Bishop, this time in a van outside a bank in San Francisco, California with a team of techies and hackers who are evidently intent on breaking in.

There are no wooshy swoopy special effects or furious tippy-tapping on a computer keyboard to simulate action. We just see five very intelligent men thinking their way through a problem. Mother is underground in a manhole, tinkering with wires. Inside the van, the blind Whistler listens to tones, trying to discern which wire to cut to disable the security system. Bishop has already done his part of the job, having used some social engineering skills to secure a safety deposit box inside the bank days before. Carl, the young prodigy, handles wiring inside the bank after a trio of the gang break inside. And Crease does the actual hands-on hacking of a bank terminal from inside, completing the job. The group makes a clean getaway, having transferred a fortune in cash into Bishop's bank account.

                    May I ask why you're closing your account
                    with us today, sir?

                    Well, I just had this weird feeling that my
                    money wasn't safe here anymore.

        Bishop walks off, past a security guard and up the
        stairs and into a boardroom overlooking the bank floor.
        Several executives are waiting for him.  He puts the
        briefcase down on the table and starts dramatically
        slapping ten-thousand dollar wads of money down in front
        of them.

                    Gentlemen, your communication lines are
                    vulnerable, your fire exits need to be
                    monitored, your rent-a-cops are a tad
                    undertrained.  Outside of that everything
                    seems to be just fine. You'll be getting our
                    full report and analysis in a few days but
                    first, who's got my check?

As is explained to us moments later, Bishop and crew are what is today known in the business as "white hat hackers," true hackers who've gone over to the light side of the force, testing security systems by breaking into them and thus helping to fortify them against future attacks by "black hats." We get a closer look at the various skills and capabilities of Bishop's team shortly thereafter, when two men come to Bishop with "an offer he can't refuse."

                    Darren Roskow.  Also known as "Mother".
                    Eighteen months at Dannemora for breaking
                    and entering.

                    Yeah, he was framed.  He's got the best
                    hands in the business.

                    Carl Arbogast.  Age nineteen.  Caught
                    breaking into the Oakland City School
                    District computer to change his grades.

                    I know!  We're the ones who caught him!

                    Irwin Emery.  Also known as "Whistler."

                    Yeah, yeah, I know.  He had some little
                    problem with the phone company.

                    Sixty-two counts?

                    Okay, you want law enforcement?  How about
                    Donald Crease?  Twenty-two year veteran of
                    the CIA.

                    Terminated!  1987.  Why was that?

                    I don't know, I think maybe a personality
                    conflict.  Who are you guys?

Who they are is the National Security Agency (NSA), the guys responsible for monitoring communications, breaking codes and generally doing anything the FBI or the CIA doesn't have enough clearance to do. They also take care of the illegal things, which is precisely where Martin comes in. It seems that the NSA has intercepted some transmissions from the Russians to a certain mathematician named Dr. Gunter Janek, who's working on some sort of "black box" dealing with cryptography under a project called Setec Astronomy. If Martin recovers the box, he and his team get $175,000 (a lot of money in 1992), and Martin himself gets his arrest record cleared. If he refuses to help, he goes to prison. What choice does he have? Big corporate government enlists skilled criminal to do their dirty deeds once again.

Convincing his partners to help him out is the hard part, and it's a scene that reveals quite a lot about their personal allegiances and motivations:

                    The probable level of security is very low.
                    But if you guys don't want to take that
                    chance just to keep me out of jail, fine, I
                    understand, I'll do it.

                    Well, Bish, I can't speak for the other
                    guys, but I'm in it for the money, I don't
                    care if you go to jail.

                    Me neither.  I'm in.

                    Uh... could we maybe just go back to the
                    "they might kill us" part?

                    Mother, if I thought that was likely to
                    happen, I wouldn't bring this to you.  But
                    there is a risk.

                    And it pays $175,000!

                    I'm in.

                    You guys will be chalk outlines without me.
                    All right, what do we need?

        Crease low-fives Whistler on his way back to the group.

Half the crew is only interested in cash, several are playing on the sentiments of the rest, and we're never quite sure exactly why these guys are working together. And that's half the fun.

Bishop looks up his old flame, Liz, and invites her to see Dr. Janek at a lecture happening later that day. She immediately suspects that he wants to get back together. In truth, he just needs her to explain all the mathematics to him. He's just a hacker, not a mathematician, and it takes one of the latter to understand that what Janek is discussing is unbreakable codes, and how to break them.

At the lecture, Martin runs into an old Russian friend named Gregor Ivanovich, now a Cultural Attache; evidently the Russians are just as interested in what Janek has to say. But both of them are left in the cold when Janek leaves the lecture to head back to his room. Well, not quite in the cold. Martin's team are already in place surveiling Janek's room; Mother is on a window-washer's platform under his window, and the others are in the team's van parked in a parking ramp across the street.

The team scans the room through a camera, but doesn't see the little black box in the room anywhere. Janek's girlfriend comes in and wants to make out with the good doctor, but she's snubbed, complaining that she left a message on his answering service, without reply. As Janek types in his computer password, she rubs his shoulders, blocking the view of our hackers across the way. Eventually, her wiles are too much to resist, and they shut the blinds so the duo can do whatever it is adults do behind closed doors.

This leaves the hackers to sit down to analyze the video they shot, attempting to discern the password from a few frames of poorly shot, partially blocked video. They fail, miserably, leaving it up to Whistler to give them the clue they're failing to recognize.

                    Fellas, Janek's little black box is on his
                    desk between the pencil jar and the lamp.

                    Uh, Whistler, I hate to tell you this, but
                    you're blind.

                    Play the tape back again.

                    You can't even see anything!

                    Don't look, listen!

        Whistler strikes a tuning fork.

                    Play it back.

                                (on tape)
                    I leave message here on service but you do

                    He's got a service.

        They zoom in on the answering machine.

                    What's he need an answering machine for?

                    There's our little black box.

With the clue they need, the team heads out for a little more social engineering, with Bishop, wired for sound, tricking the desk clerk along with Carl's help. Carl poses as a delivery driver, arguing with the desk clerk about an unscheduled delivery while Bishop fast-talks his way past with a fake birthday cake and some balloons. No trenchcoats laden with nasty weapons, just brains and charisma. At the door to Janek's room, he defeats an electronic keypad lock with a quick boot to the door and grabs the black box, but runs into Rhyzkov, Janek's girlfriend. It takes some quick thinking from his buds across the street to get himself out of this fix, as they quickly ad lib a story about Janek's non-existent wife.

                    Velma.  Velma Janek.  She lives in Montreal
                    where she handles her family's real estate
                    holdings.  Vast real estate holdings.
                    Farms, banks, shopping malls.  Two shopping
                    malls. She supports Gunter but figured he
                    was cheating on her and that's why she hired

                    Bastard liar!

        She utters a few Czech swearwords and starts for the

And it's as easy as that--the guys have the black box, nobody got shot, and it's time to party. But of course, they can't help taking a peek inside the mysterious little gadget, and discovering more about the strange job they've just seemingly accomplished. As half the team fiddles around with the box on Whistler's Braille terminal, the other half play around with a Scrabble board, figuring out anagrams for "Setec Astronomy." They figure it out at the same time; both the box and the acronym have to do with "Too Many Secrets," in a big way.

Using the black box, the boys manage to break into some of the most heavily-encrypted systems in the country: the Federal Reserve, the national power grid, air traffic control. Janek has not just discovered a simple code breaker--he's discovered THE code breaker, the one key that can break any code. And that fact has just put them all in serious danger, since they all realize that any government on earth would kill them all to get their hands on the box.

This becomes painfully clear the next morning after Martin hands over the black box to his NSA contacts. Crease, waiting in the car, sees that Janek has been murdered, his room torched. He quickly calls Martin away from his meeting on a pretense, ordering him into the car so they can quickly make their getaway, sans money. But alive and poor is better than rich and dead, especially when the duo head over to the "NSA" offices, finding them demolished. A little research and a few favors called in brings the team to the realization that they've been duped, bigtime.

The guys must find out who their enemies are, so Martin heads off to a concert to meet/hold up his Russian friend Gregor, who undoubtedly knows something about what's going on. Initially suspecting that Gregor is to blame, Martin winds up in a limousine with his old friend, poring over portfolios and dossiers listing known double agents. They soon spot one of the men in the book:

                    A loathsome man named Buddy DeVries.  A.K.A.
                    Buddy Weber, Buddy Wallace...

                    Wallace.  That's him.

                    Hm.  We tried to recruit him in '83.
                    Drinking problem, married three times.  Left
                    the NSA four years ago...  Oh my.

        Greg abruptly slams the book closed.  He is as white as
        a sheet.


        Greg just looks grim.

                    You disappeared once before, my friend.  I
                    suggest you do it again.

The limousine is suddenly pulled over by the FBI, and Gregor offers Martin asylum inside the car. Martin declines, and Gregor warns him that he "won't know who to trust." Moments later, Martin is being frisked, his pistol is being used to execute Gregor and his driver, and Wallace emerges from the FBI vehicle to knock Martin unconscious. He regains consciousness in the trunk, then is knocked out again and wakes up in an office, alone. Well, not quite alone... it turns out that his old friend Cosmo is alive after all.

As it turns out, Cosmo has plans to change the world, and he needs that little black box to do it. His goals seem just, if a bit lofty, and perfectly in line with the Cyberpunk/hacker ethos:

                    What's wrong with this country, Marty?
                    Money.  You taught me that.  Evil defense
                    contractors had it, noble causes did not.
                    Politicians are bought and sold like so much
                    chattel.  Our problems multiply.  Pollution,
                    crime, drugs, poverty, disease, hunger,
                    despair; we throw gobs of money at them!
                    The problems always get worse.  Why is that?
                    Because money's most powerful ability is to
                    allow bad people to continue doing bad
                    things at the expense of those who don't
                    have it.


                    I might even be able to crash the whole
                    damned system. Destroy all records of
                    ownership.  Think of it, Marty.  No more
                    rich people, no more poor people, everybody's
                    the same, isn't that what we said we always

Martin has grown old and bitter, and perhaps a little more sane at the same time, and he rejects Cosmo's offer of joining him on his noble crusade. In turn, Cosmo uses the black box to access the FBI database. Martin is doomed. His fingerprints are on the gun that was used to kill a Russian consular officer, and his real name and address are now in the FBI database (thanks to Cosmo). And to make matters worse, he gets knocked unconscious again and dumped in a nameless San Francisco street.

He may be down, but he's not out yet. Bishop quickly and quietly rounds up the troops and prepares for a counterstrike. Now that the enemy is known, they have a chance, albeit a slim one. They quickly set up a blizzard of electronic equipment in Liz's apartment, their own now being monitored, no doubt, by the FBI.

                    I'm going to bounce this call through nine
                    different relay stations throughout the
                    world and off two satellites. It'll be the
                    hardest trace they've ever heard.

        Mother proudly shows off an impressive-looking pen
        register machine.

                    This'll measure stress in the voice of the
                    person on the other end of the line.  Not as
                    accurate as a polygraph, but for today's
                    purposes it'll do.

It may be a far cry from Case's cyberdeck, but it gets the job done, and they soon find themselves on the phone with the real NSA, and a man named Mr. Abbott. The call fails to achieve much, as they have to drop the line before the phone trace is complete after discerning that Mr. Abbott is lying about guaranteeing the safety of Martin and his cohorts. The only thing left to do is to get the box.

Once again relying on the low-tech method of remembering sounds, Whistler aids Martin in recalling the sound of the bridge he was driven across, the fact that he went over railroad tracks, and the fact that there was a "cocktail party" at a reservoir, soon revealed to be a bunch of geese. (Trivia buffs: the bridge he crossed was the Dunbarton, which is in the South Bay area, a fact which can be gleaned primarily from the fact that they encounter railroad tracks, geese and a reservoir right after the bridge. Check it out on a map.) It's not long before they discover the toy company that's a front for Cosmo's operation. A little more clever surveillance and electronics research and they have their plan together.

They need to get to the man in the office next door to Cosmo's high-security room, steal his cardkey and get his voice on tape. A quick DMV check of the guy's license plate (180 IQ) gives them his name, Werner Brandes. Some "trashing" (digging through his trash) reveals that he's registered with a computer dating agency. And a peek at the rest of his trash reveals that Liz would be perfect for him. Liz will go on a date with him, steal his voice and card, and use it to break into his office, climb across the ceiling into the adjacent room, and steal the black box back.

Of course, even once they're inside the room, they've got more problems. Cosmo's office is protected by a heavy-duty heat-sensitive motion sensor. Not only must the temperature in the room be raised to 98.6 degrees, but Martin will only be able to move at 2 inches per second. Any faster, and he's a dead goose.

Liz gets Werner's voice on tape (sort of), and the guys spring into action... or rather, waltz slowly into action. The entire setup takes not minutes, but hours. First, Carl poses as a gardener and sneaks inside the ventilation ducts to set the thermostat in the room to 98.6, as Mother takes his place outside so nobody notices. Later that night, Liz goes on a second date with Werner to get his cardkey. Then Martin uses the card to waltz calmly through security as, conveniently, the phone rings as he arrives.

Once inside, he attaches a broadcasting device to the security cameras so the guys in the van can keep watch, and plays the tape into Werner's voice-verification system. With a click, he's inside. And thus begins the slowest hack in history, as Martin inches his way across the room to swap the real black box for the fake one he's now carrying. Elsewhere, the other half of the run isn't going so well, as Liz's true identity is discovered by Werner, who immediately suspects that something is amiss and drags Liz back to the office. Security is alerted, and Martin barely manages to clamber back inside the ducts before Cosmo and company discover what's going on. The plan quickly goes all to hell, and Cosmo brings Liz and Martin together under false pretenses, promising that he won't kill them.

                    So you have my box?

                    We have a deal, right?

        Cosmo starts to leave.

                    Wait a second.  Wait a minute.

        Dick Gordon loads his pistol.

                    Goddamnit, you gave me your word!

                    I cannot kill my friend.
                                (To Wallace and Gordon)
                    Kill my friend!

                    Son of a bitch!

Carl bursts through the ceiling and the trio disarm their captors, fleeing to the roof. But of course, things aren't quite through going wrong, as Mother and Crease are captured by guards in the getaway van. Whistler has to drive blind across the lot, in reverse, as Crease overpowers the distracted guards (the entire movie is worth it just to hear Sidney Poitier drop the "F-bomb"). Once he gets there, Carl and Liz clamber down the fire escape, leaving Martin alone on the roof to face his old friend, and new nemesis, Cosmo.

                    You could have had the power.

                    I don't want it.

                    Don't you know the places we can go with

                    Yeah, I do.  There's nobody there.

                    Exactly!  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.

                    I don't care.

It's no longer a game for Martin. He's through trying to change the world, because he realizes that there's no way to succeed at it, especially with people like Cosmo around. Of course, he's still not averse to one final "hack" on his old friend; the box he hands over to Cosmo is empty; he's kept the real black box all to himself.

All of which is entirely moot since the NSA shows up in their office and holds them at gunpoint. But the team has information now, and they realize that what the NSA wants to do with the black box is illegal. They cut a deal with the officers, getting their names cleared, special favors done, and even getting a date for Carl.

                    The young lady with the...
                                (he checks)
                    ...Uzi.  Is she... single?

                    Uh, you know, Carl...
                                (to Abbott)
                    Excuse us please.

        Bishop takes Carl aside.

                    This is the brass ring.  Now, you've got to
                    think bigger thoughts.

                    I just want her telephone number.  Please?

        The young woman lowers her weapon, amazed.

And then, of course, there's the best exchange in the whole movie.

                    I want peace on earth and goodwill toward

                    We are the United States Government.  We
                    don't do that sort of thing.

                    You're just going to have to try.

                                (eyes narrowing)
                    Alright!  I'll see what I can do.

As it turns out of course, the team of hackers are Cyberpunks to the core, because even after they hand over the black box it's revealed that they kept the vital chip from inside. They'll double-cross anyone, morality and legality be damned. And as it turns out, Martin and company wind up using the chip to pull a "Robin Hood" stunt of epic proportions, redistributing wealth to needy organizations.

Undoubtedly, what many will ask about the film, or the synopsis I've given here, is "How is this Cyberpunk?" After all, of course, the film lacks cyborgs shooting each other with machineguns, explosions, hovering battletanks, spiffy special effects-laden journies through cyberspace, a,d a futuristic setting. But it doesn't need any of that to be among its peers in this little list I've constructed for you.

Sneakers fits perfectly amidst our grouping of "second-generation" Cyberpunk films (films which are aware of themselves, in some way, of being "Cyberpunk"). You've got all the truly essential elements in place: suppressive government/law enforcement; corporations bent on world domination; clever, amoral anti-heroes; and a general punkish attitude to the way our group of anti-heroes battle against everyone bigger than they are, all the way to the end.

What's more, Sneakers is a perfect example of how to run a brilliant Cyberpunk campaign without bringing in the Solos and Cyberpsychos. Here we have a group of techies and netrunners (and even an ex-Cop, if you will) working together. They carry guns, but none of them ever fire a shot. They have criminal backgrounds, but none of them are living in alleys shooting drugs. They're ordinary people like you and me, with that little extra bit of knowledge that gives them the power to accomplish something special in a world that's desperately trying to keep people in their place.

Ultimately then, what they are is evidence that a "Cyberpunk" is not necessarily someone who dresses in black leather, wears mirrorshades and rides a Harley-Davidson. Their weapons are their computers, and their electronic equipment, and their brains, and their companionship, not some big anti-cyberpsycho cannon or a monokatana. And while those other things certainly have their place in the futuristic setting within which we find most Cyberpunk heroes, they're no more essential to the story than dragons are to Fantasy stories. Take The Princess Bride, for an example of the latter; nary a dragon, goblin or demon to be found, and yet it's one of the finest examples of Fantasy film that I can think of (cheap plug: check out my article on the Princess Bride at by clicking here).

The short of it: Cyberpunk isn't always obvious. Sometimes, in fact, it's only where it's not obvious. Sometimes it's pretty darn sneaky.

Of course, sometimes it's right in your face too, and that's why I'm switching gears for the next installment of C-4. Next week, we'll take a look at a film that makes no bones about taking every Cyberpunk cliche and throwing it back in your face, guns blazing. Luckily for us, it does a pretty good job of it too. Keep an eye out for my exploration of 1993's Cyber-exploitation classic, Nemesis, a film which burns through more rounds of ammunition than all the other films I've covered thus far.