Of course there has to be a hacker film starring San Francisco. Northern California is the breeding ground for the computerati and technophiles. Sneakers (1992) may have been ahead of the dot-com boom, but even in the early ’90s you could do some serious damage with your PC.

If you didn’t know the Bay Area, Sneakers might sneak past you as a San Francisco film. The city appears briefly, as a flash of a cable car, with the Bay Bridge in the background, or as a shot of Alcatraz. Outsiders wouldn’t automatically recognize the city, but it’s not necessary to understand the film in operating as a product of a specific place. Then again, it makes sense.

Martin (Robert Redford) and Cosmo (Ben Kingsley) are essentially communists. Rotten, Robin Hoodesque, take-from-the-rich-give-to-the-poor, bleeding red, screwing-with-the-government kind of communists. These sorts of people aren’t allowed to exist outside of the Bay Area. Back in their youth, Martin and Cosmo hacked into big organizations’ databases and transferred their money into charities and other liberal-leaning groups. Cosmo still yearns for this redistribution of wealth; Martin now leads a crew of hackers in a business that shows other businesses how lax their security is.

But Martin hasn’t lost his pinko streak–he even gives a homeless man some money before he goes to meet with the NSA about his next assignment. But how many of us actually give money to the homeless? Sure, some food, okay…but you know what those panhandlers do with cold hard cash, right? In fact, we’re even encouraged not to give money to the people on the streets. In Martin’s defense, though, he is a transplant. He just doesn’t know better.

On the other hand, Whistler is all for optimism and good nature. If the movie were set in the current day, he’d be one to hang prayer flags around his apartment’s fire escape. When he’s allowed to name his price in turning over a piece of loot to the government, he goes all soft:

Whistler: I want peace on earth and goodwill toward men.
Bernard Abbott: We are the United States Government! We don’t do that sort of thing.
Martin Bishop: You’re just gonna have to try.
Bernard Abbott: All right, I’ll see what I can do.
Whistler: Thank you very much. That’s all I ask.

I told you they were all pinkos. And yellow-bellied ones at that.

Cosmo, who acts as the bad guy in the main heist/hack, plays the cynical counterpart that’s a little bit more San Francisco to Whistler’s Marin.

He’s all about changing the world, rerouting money to balance out power within the government and business. Maybe he’s a little too hard for San Francisco, but like Martin, he’s also a transplant. Moving beyond character nitpicking, we find that he’s not above a good conspiracy theory:

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

Are we sure he’s not a product of Bay Area socialization/education? Even if the assorted hackers all have distinct personalities, their characters are true to Bay Area politics and personalities, if not that of San Francisco. Hackers aren’t exactly after the status quo, but this group doesn’t hack for personal gain–when Martin and his crew steal a universal decoder that will allow them to access any secure database, they don’t even think about keeping it. These men get their thrill shaking things up, like sending some of Richard Nixon’s personal money to the National Organization to Legalize Marijuana. Hella legit.

Sneakers is available on Netflix, in HD, on iTunes, and on Amazon.

Starring San Francisco is Appeal culture reporter, Christine
Borden’s, take on the city’s cinematic past to illuminate today. Have a
locally-set film you’d like to see featured? Tell her at

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