Directed by John Badham. Starring Matthew Broderick, Dabney Coleman, Ally Sheedy, John Wood, Barry Corbin, Michael Madsen, Maury Chaykin, Eddie Deezen.
Back to the 1980s, again, my friends. Bear witness now that director John Badham made not only one of the quintessential ‘70s-culture films (Saturday Night Fever) but one of the quintessential ‘80s-culture film, WarGames.
WarGames is the Fail-Safe of its decade, a nuclear-brinkmanship thriller about how easily the “safeguards” on U.S. and Soviet weapons could accidentally ignite a full-scale attack. Note that I didn’t say it’s the Dr. Strangelove of the 1980s; WarGames has its funny moments, but it certainly isn’t a satirical comedy, and has much more in common with Lumet’s straight-faced thriller. It’s also a film openly about the personal computer revolution that was in full-scale attack mode and hasn’t let up since. Nerds were posed to conquer the world—and achieved it. Yeah team!
Lest we forget the geopolitical backdrop of the film, 1983 marked a low-point in U.S.-Soviet relations. This was the year of the Korean Airlines Flight 007 and Operation Able Archer, which almost caused the Soviet Union to order a strike because they believed a NATO practice simulation was a massing for a genuine attack. It was a nervous time, and the majority of people in the U.S. felt that a nuclear conflict was inevitable. As a child at that time, I remember vividly my nightmarish fears that at any moment the mushroom clouds could start sprouting.
WarGames hit with perfect timing… and it managed to be fun while exploiting real fears. Like Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove, it doesn’t point the finger at a nationalistic “villain”—i.e. the Soviets aren’t the “bad guys,” and in fact never appear in the film except as blinking objects on screen—but puts the blame on the nature of the brinkmanship game. The game is the problem. And the only solution, the film says outright at the end, is not to play.
WarGames could have been extremely dour and grim—again, think Fail-Safe—but ends up as a high-tension thriller with a light touch, for which we can probably thank John Badham, who took over from the extremely dark direction of Martin Brest, and the presence of the likable Matthew Broderick. It’s thought-provoking about the ‘80s Cold War, but it’s more enjoyable today because of its view of the burgeoning computer world. The Cold War died, the Computer Revolution won, and WarGames shows the switch happening.
The film opens with a great suspense sequence that sets in motion the serious aspect of the story before the introduction of the lighter teen side that will catalyze it. Two men in a firing control center receive the codes informing them that they must launch their nuclear missiles; apparently, World War III has erupted. Out of contact with the outside, they have to rely on the data fed them and follow their instructions to launch weapons that will kill millions of people. One of them fails in his resolve, and his partner pulls a firearm on him as we cut to the main titles.
What I think is clever about this opening—aside from creating the immediate aura of impending nuclear annihilation and the sense of mechanization removing people from process of waging war—is that if you’ve never seen the movie before and know it only from the trailers or a short description, you don’t have any idea when the scene is occurring. Could this be a flash-forward, and the launch orders are coming from “Joshua,” the war game computer that Matthew Broderick is toying with? Is the scene part of the climax, viewed from the other side of the computer screen? Is the emergency in any way a real? These are the right sort of questions a filmmaker wants an audience pondering as the film starts.
The reality: the scenario is a psychological test to see how many technicians would actually fire their missiles if they believed they had legitimate orders to do so. James Earl Jones’s character suggested as much in Dr. Strangelove, wondering if the transmission of “Wing Attack Plan R” was nothing more than a loyalty test. In the loyalty test of WarGames, twenty percent of the technicians fail to fire the missiles. This presents the Department of Defense with a quandary.
An answer comes from NORAD system engineer John McKittrick (Dabney Coleman). Having never seen Colossus: The Forbin Project (or, I imagine, Dr. Strangelove), McKittrick elects that having a computer operate the missiles, a computer that can’t be shut off, will solve the problem by taking the human factor out of the equation. He introducers WOPR—a reference to “Whoppper,” but better known to the film-going public as “Joshua,” the codename used to access its backdoor. WOPR does nothing but run war simulations and develop better strategies as it does so, and should theoretically be better equipped to control missile launches without human interference.
Human interference appears anyway, in the form of Seattle high schooler David Lightman, slacker computer genius (Broderick in his establishing film-star role). While trying to impress the aerobic-loving cute girl in class, Jennifer Mack (Ally Sheedy), with his system-hacking skills, David breaks into what he believes is a Sunnyvale, CA game company and meets “Joshua,” an AI that believes David is actually its programmer, the deceased Dr. Falken. But “Joshua” is actually the AI that runs WOPR, and when David and Jennifer decide to kick back (while drinking Tabs!) with a game of “Global Thermonuclear War,” they unknowingly initiate Joshua’s war game scenario, making NORAD believe that Las Vegas and Seattle are under attack from a Soviet first-strike. (David, of course, decided to take the role of the Russians in the game. Smart-aleck.)
The false attack concludes before NORAD counterattacks against the supposed Soviet strike, but it is a freakishly close call. (One quite similar almost occurred on the Soviet side in real-life, during the tension after the downing of the Korean Air jet.) The U.S. government nabs David immediately, but remains unaware that “Joshua” is still playing the game toward its conclusion. David figures out that the computer has put the planet on a deadline for destruction. He escapes from NORAD hidden inside a tour group, and with Jennifer’s help starts out to find Dr. Falken (John Wood), who is not dead but living in seclusion under a hidden identity, and determine a way to stop Joshua’s zero-sum game.
By the way, does NORAD actually give civilian tours? There are a few credibility-stretching moments in WarGames, but a busload of tourists allowed access to the nuclear-control heart of the biggest superpower in the world has to be the script’s way of saying: “We had to find some way to let the hero sneak out of the most maximum security location in the nation without being noticed.” I wonder if Area51 has a tourist brochure?
The nuclear-thriller aspect is only half of WarGames, and it’s the one that has dated the most. The other half of the film—the computer hacker world—is more striking today, because the technology is still with us, only grown to titanic proportions that 1983 could only draw up in movie dreams. Yes, the modem that David Lightman uses is hilariously archaic, and the computer terminals are at a Stone Age level, but the world of computer communications that the film presents is only different from today by degree. I think it’s fair to say that, after Tron, WarGames is the most important “computer movie” of the 1980s about the explosion of personal computing. The power of the Thinking Machines was now in the hands of the masses, and did the masses really understand what they could do with them? Or what the Thinking Machines could do to them?
It’s not only a techno-fear that informs WarGames, but also a fear that the children are getting ahead of the rest of us with the technology. And by “us,” I mean the adult audience of 1983. Because I was one of those children in 1983. I was ten when the film came out. Tron had a bigger effect on me because of its fantasy world element, but WarGames spoke to an empowerment of the young, and the fear that the adults didn’t understand us and had reason to fear us.
David Lightman is an interesting character, who starts as an anti-hero and ends up the hero—a transition that isn’t smooth and is one of the film’s flaws. When we first meet David, he’s a smart but lazy kid with little in the way of morals. He knows he’s smart, assumes he’s smarter than all the dullards around him, and therefore doesn’t see any need to actually work at anything: he can just go into the computer and change what he wants. Bad grade? Enter the school computer and change it. He’ll do the same for the cute girl in the class. Hey, why not order some tickets to Paris? And if a new video game company is advertising an upcoming line of games, why not break into their system and play the games for free? David isn’t a kid who feels he needs to work to achieve anything, and the world should simply come to him for free because he’s smart.
When David changes into the hero, desperately trying to stop “Joshua” from playing its war-scenario its apocalyptic conclusion, it at first seems that the only reason he’s making such effort is because he doesn’t want to die as well in a nuclear Armageddon along with everybody else. Understandable. But the film glosses over any idea that David is becoming altruistic, or even remorseful that he triggered all this through illegal hacking, and at the end the film closes down with a cut to the closing credits roll before anybody can suggest that David should receive severe punishment for illegal activities and almost nuking the world because he wanted to pirate some video games. A couple of pats on the back and Dabney Coleman ruffling his hair? I think a deep, dark pit in Langley would be this kid’s destination.
A turning point for David—really, the only point in the story where I can see a purposeful shift in his perspective—comes from meeting Dr. Falken. Where David starts only interested in himself, Falken doesn’t even care that far. His view is that the human race is destined to wipe itself out, and the best hope is simply to put yourself closest to the nuclear blast when it goes off so you won’t suffer long. (His proof is showing 16 mm copies of One Million Years B.C. and The Land That Time Forgot. That’s all the evidence I need! This professor has a great film collection!)
But, let’s be honest, David really changes because Ally Sheedy is cute. The relationship between the characters of David and Jennifer is pretty sweet and adorable, and it softens up the impact of David’s more sketchy activity, as well as the darker aspects of the film. Original director Martin Brest, who was fired after twelve days of shooting, had apparently pushed the two actors in darker directions, and it was John Badham who lightened the mood between Broderick and Sheedy, giving them a sense of adventure and fun that the movie really needs. It works. Also, I had a total ten-year-old crush on Ally Sheedy back when the film came out, so that does affect my perception of it.
Postscript: During the finale, WOPR rapidly rips through a series of scenarios that could lead to nuclear war, each ending in the complete elimination of both sides. After some obvious maneuvers—U.S. First Strike, U.S.S.R. First Strike, India/Pakistan War—the scenario names get hilarious, and sound like products of a late-night brainstorming session where the production team got drunk and started hurling out names that sound like Robert Ludlum novels. My favorites: “Iceland Maximum,” “Arctic Minimal,” “Turkish Heavy,” “Chad Interdiction,” and “Bangladesh Theaterwide.” This summer, Gerard Butler and Rachel McAdams are caught in… The Iceland Maximum!