The Movie ‘Sneakers’: What the Character Cosmo Tells Us About Hacktivism in Capitalist Democracy

Many echo-boomers might recognize the movie “Sneakers” from their childhood, as it was one of River Phoenix’s last.  However, the film contains one of the most interesting and controversial characters of all time: a hacktivist named Cosmo.

The Movie 'Sneakers': What the Character Cosmo Tells Us About Hacktivism in Capitalist Democracy

“Sneakers” was one of the first outright hacker movies.  As such, it’s something of a curiosity with regard to the subject matter and because it also happened to be one of River Phoenix’s last films before collapsing outside the Viper Room.  The degree of acting talent in the film is undeniable, as is some of the writing.

More curious still is the filmmakers’ creation of one of cinema’s most enigmatic characters in the guise of Cosmo, played by Ben Kingsley.  Cosmo probably has the sum total of five minutes of screen time, but through Kingsley’s gravitas, Cosmo radiates throughout the whole film, overshadowing every last character with his intellect and purity of vision, and his awareness that capitalism and democracy—especially as practiced in America—are not what they seem.  He is something of the prototype of Julian Assange, had Assange decided instead to operate in the shadows.

Cosmo is, for lack of a better phrase, through the looking glass of reality.

Embedded just below is the most important scene from “Hackers,” as far as I’m concerned. It seems to suggest a political inclination on the part of the writers and directors: a desire to make things as they could be.  They had to have someone like Cosmo communicate these ideas, for if the everyman played by Robert Redford were to speak such lines, it wouldn’t have had the impact.  Only an actor of Kingsley’s caliber could give form and shape to these ideas, such that they could explode reality into a thousand pieces.  Only an actor of Kingsley’s caliber could make Cosmo’s ideas seem possible but sensible to the masses.


Here, Cosmo assumes villain status, but in a more honest world without all the interference of movie financiers and all the other variables in selling a movie, Cosmo would be the hero and Redford the coward who abandons the cause.

“We were going to change the world, Marty, remember?  Did you ever get around to actually doing it?  No, I guess not.”  That might as well be an indictment of democracy taken as an entire form of government, as the act of voting actually serves as a disincentive to actually do something to change the world.  Though Cosmo is simply referring to he and Martin (Marty) Bishop’s dream.  In the case of Cosmo, he simply could not realize his dream, for he was in prison on a hacking stunt in which he and Marty took money from the Republican party and gave it to the Black Panthers.  Marty, who had gone out to get pizza while Cosmo was arrested, fled to Canada and returns to the U.S. in the film’s plot.

Cosmo then says, “Well, I think I can.”  He opens the door to a sound proof computer server room, presumably where Cosmo carries out his hacking, and he proceeds to lead Marty through a dissection of capitalism and democracy unparalleled in cinema (to my knowledge).  It displays the hacker ethos, but also an extremely acute diagnosis of the inherent structural problems with democracy and its financial philosophy of free market capitalism.

“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, crimes, drugs, poverty, 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 do bad things… at the expense of those who don’t have it.

The most critical point here is that in a capitalist democracy, those in power—whether they be politicians, investors, the Federal Reserve—always believe that money will solve our problems.  Democrats have their social agenda and the billions spent there, and Republicans have their military agenda, with near trillions spent on defense contracts, intelligence, wars, etc. (To be fair, Democrats aren’t exactly doing much to curb America’s defense spending.)

The most disturbing point here—witnessed most recently in the actions of Wall Street in 2008—is that “money’s most powerful ability is to allow bad people to bad things… at the expense of those who don’t have it.”  What better distillation exists to explain what happened with the credit default swaps and mortgage-backed securities, followed by the federal government’s bailout, which put more wealth into the hands of the financial elite than into the hands of people who actually need it?

Marty calls Cosmo out on his idealism by asking him again who his employers were, to which Cosmo says, “Oh, that’s just my day job.”  (More on that in the conclusion.)  This is where things get truly interesting in the back-and-forth dialogue between Cosmo and Marty.

Cosmo says, “While in prison, I learned everything in this world, including money, operates not on reality…” To which Marty replies, “But the perception of reality.” This is critical. The truth spoken here is mind-blowing if one lets the concept sink in. Money only has value if we agree that it has value, otherwise it is merely paper (or, more and more, some numbers floating about in the aether). This exchange is true Baudrillardian thought: the unveiling of an un-reality, a collective hallucination under which not only Americans operate, but a good percentage of humanity.

What follows is equally stunning:

Cosmo: Posit: People think a bank might be financially shaky.

Marty: Consequence: People start to withdraw their money.

Cosmo: Result: Pretty soon it is financially shaky.

Marty: Conclusion: You can make banks fail.

What we have here is Cosmo and Marty demonstrating the perception of reality—the hallucinatory effect of money, and indeed financial systems, broken.  Cosmo then makes a buzzing sound and says, “I’ve already done that.  Maybe you’ve read about a few.  Think bigger.”

Marty: Stock markets.

Cosmo: Yes.

Marty: Currency markets.

Cosmo: Yes.

Marty: Commodities markets?

Cosmo: Yes.

Marty: Small countries?

Cosmo: 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 always wanted?

Marty asks Cosmo if he’s gone crazy, and Cosmo replies, “Who else is going to change the world, Marty?  Greenpeace?”  Yet another vital point raised by Cosmo.  An acknowledgment that protest and activism within the rules of a capitalist democracy will not achieve the sort of change that most people desire (ruling out the political and financial elite).

Cosmo’s character suggests that to truly change the operating principles of the world, to unveil the collective hallucination, that it would require people on the inside to trigger the change.  That it might take those who can temporarily suspend their ethics to get in and once there, wreak havoc.  Sleepers, so to speak.

Imagine that: the tactics of the State turned against it.

I leave you with one thought from Cosmo’s last scene:

“The world isn’t run by weapons anymore or energy or money, it’s run by little 1’s and 0’s, little bits of data. It’s all just electrons… 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, how we think. It’s all about the information.”