WarGames (1983) ***½
I don’t remember when I learned that I was living in the midst of a conflict that threatened to end civilization, and maybe even to cause the extinction of the human race. It seems like the kind of thing that would stick with you, but although I vividly recall how I learned exactly what an atom bomb did (thanks, “Night Flight”…), the moment when I discovered that dozens of the things were pointed more or less directly at my house is now lost to my memory. Maybe the very pervasiveness of the nuclear issue during the Cold War was such that there simply was no single, discrete moment of enlightenment. I mean, they joked about the looming apocalypse on “You Can’t Do That on Television,” for the love of Surt! There’s a good chance, though, that the first time I was provoked to think seriously about the subject, to sort through the probabilities, the stakes, and the implications to the best of a child’s ability, was when WarGames made its way to the cable movie channels. I would have been nine years old at the time.
That’s awfully young to be contemplating the deliberate suicide of your entire species, but it’s not like my experience was in any way remarkable. After all, mine was the second whole generation raised in the shadow of mushroom clouds. There is, however, an important sense in which we kids of the 80’s faced a very different Cold War from the ones our predecessors knew. The state of more or less openly acknowledged stalemate that the superpowers fell into after the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which useful and encouraging developments like Détente, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks could be readily justified on the grounds that both sides in the conflict were stuck with each other for the foreseeable future, came to an abrupt end on January 20th, 1981. On that day, Ronald Wilson Reagan was inaugurated to the Presidency of the United States, and he was having none of that de-escalation crap.
It’s become popular in certain circles of late to imagine Reagan as a master poker player who bluffed the Soviet Union into bankrupting itself, but that’s a crock of shit. Reagan was a Cold Warrior of the old school— the pre-H-Bomb, pre-Sputnik school— who believed that if a showdown between NATO and the Warsaw Pact was inevitable one of these days, then we’d better make sure the good guys won it. He sought conflict, not conciliation, and approached the delicate matters of geopolitics with the macho swagger of a true ignoramus, secure in the “knowledge” that God wasn’t going to let anything bad happen to his new Chosen People. It was merely the world’s good fortune that his counterparts in the Kremlin were at first a pair of doddering old fossils who couldn’t find their asses with a GPS uplink, and later a man with the wisdom to recognize that answering Reagan’s bellicosity in kind would accomplish nothing but to get every human being on this planet killed. Don’t misunderstand me here. The Soviet Union was an “evil empire,” and the world is a better place without it for a thousand reasons. But the Cold War had turned the United States into one of those, too, as the mass graves all over Nicaragua and El Salvador will attest, and it was no doing of Reagan’s that the long struggle ended in a big sledgehammer party at the Berlin Wall instead of atomic holocaust the world over. Had somebody like Vladimir Putin— or Reagan himself, for that matter— been calling the shots in Moscow at the time, you’d almost certainly be dead now. Or if you were born after about 1983, your parents would be dead, and you would most likely never have existed in the first place.
Therein lay the difference between the Cold War I lived through and the one experienced by earlier generations. In the 80’s, it was us rattling sabers all over the globe, us destablizing regimes that didn’t suit us and arming monsters like Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, us training Third World paramilitary police forces to rape nuns to death For The Cause. Obviously I was too young at the time to put all those pieces together for myself, but even a kid knows how the good guys are supposed to act. The B-movie cowboy in the White House could say that was us as often as he wanted, but our actions as reported every day in the morning papers and the TV news told a different story. There were no good guys anymore. And if there were no more good guys, then there was also no conceivable justification for risking a world-ending nuclear war so recklessly. We had to stop. Or failing that, we had to be stopped. So with that in mind, take a good, close look at WarGames. Yes, this is a surprisingly lighthearted action-dramedy about the most depressing subject in the world, in which a teenaged super-hacker accidentally sets the apocalypse in motion by playing exactly the wrong game with exactly the wrong computer. But it’s also the ultimate fantasy about halting an American-launched nuclear war, in which the war machine itself balks in the end at destroying us the way it was programmed to.
In fact, WarGames features a refusal to shoot the nukes in its very first scene. A couple of silo-jockeys for one of the Air Force’s strategic missile wings (John Spencer, of Echoes and Ravenous, and Michael Madsen, from Species and Bloodrayne) show up for the night shift, late as usual. Just barely have the two men settled in at their control consoles when a call comes in from wing headquarters with orders to launch. All the layers of authentication code check out, but something still doesn’t sit right with the higher-ranking of the two officers. The captain tries several times to get a live human being on the phone to confirm that he really is supposed to enter his and the lieutenant’s names into the roll call of history’s greatest murderers, but is unable to raise anyone. As the countdown to launch reaches zero, he still can’t bring himself to turn his ignition key for the missiles (each man has his own, and they have to be turned simultaneously at opposite ends of the room for anything to happen), even with the lieutenant’s sidearm pointed at his head.
It turns out those officers had been randomly chosen to participate in a war-readiness study by North American Air Defense Command (NORAD for short)— although in the real world, they would have been under the authority of Strategic Air Command. The object was to see how many of the men charged with pulling the trigger on America’s nuclear arsenal would actually do their parts when the order came down to end the world. The results were not encouraging from NORAD’s point of view, or that of the Pentagon generally: nearly one missile operator in four refused to turn the key. However, that dismaying news for the Department of Defense is an opportunity for Dr. John McKittrick (Dabney Coleman, from Black Fist and Modern Problems). A civilian scientist at or near the top of NORAD’s computer science division, McKittrick has been pushing for years to remove the chaotic human element from the equation of nuclear war. As he explains to a pair of annoyed visitors from the DOD, the centerpiece of his proposal is a powerful computer called War Operations Plan Response— or WOPR (pronounced “whopper”), as they call it around the lab. WOPR skates right up to the threshold of artificial intelligence. All day, every day, it sits in McKittrick’s laboratory fighting and re-fighting every imaginable permutation of World War III, refining its approach to the problem in response to the results of each simulation. The original objective was simply to make sure that the war plans put before the president for final approval were as good as they could be, but the computer’s consequent familiarity with those plans means that just a little tweaking of the software and a minor investment in secure data links would enable WOPR to take over the actual firing of the missiles from their human operators. NORAD commander General Beringer (Barry Corbin, of Dead & Buried and Critters 2: The Main Course) hates that idea, and not just because he takes its central premise as a slight against his men. But the guys from the Pentagon are won over by McKittrick’s assurances that the ultimate decision of whether and how to go to war will remain in human hands, with the automation of the silos doing no more than to prevent a bunch of junior officers like the ones we saw earlier from countermanding a legitimate launch order. Beringer is overruled, the president approves McKittrick’s plan, and Captain Conscience gets to watch as his chair in the silo control center is hauled away for the junk man.
Meanwhile, in Seattle, sixteen-year-old David Lightman (Matthew Broderick, from Ladyhawke and Project X) may be an academic disgrace, but he’s also a wizard with computers. And now that he knows where the principal’s secretary keeps the password to the school’s network, he can start getting some practical value from his skills. That password makes it trivially easy for David to alter his dismal grades to something that won’t have him repeating the 11th grade for the rest of his natural life, although his friend, Jennifer Mack (Ally Sheedy, of Short Circuit and Deadly Lessons), protests at being included in the scam. For the most part, though, David’s hacking is purely recreational. Like right now, the main object of his efforts behind the keyboard is to break into the network of his favorite software publisher to get an early start on the slate of new games they’ll be introducing for the holiday shopping season. Even the titles are a closely guarded secret, but all the Protovision advertisements promise groundbreaking stuff. On the afternoon when Jennifer comes over to ask him to fix her biology grade after all, David makes contact with what he assumes is the Protovision system. There’s nothing in the logon prompt specifically identifying it as such, but it’s in the right telephone prefix, and there’s a menu of game titles accessible among the files that David can reach without fighting his way past any advanced security measures. And what games! Along with the expected poker, chess, blackjack, and so on are enticing titles like Guerilla Conflict, Air-to-Ground Operations, and Global Thermonuclear War.
The depths of the system, where the games on the list presumably reside, are too well protected for David’s abilities, so he calls in a little backup. Among his older friends are a couple of stereotypical programmer weirdoes (Maury Chaykin, of Curtains and DEFCON-4, and Eddie Deezen, from Zapped! and Laserblast) who work in the IT department of one of the local businesses, so he brings them printouts of all his interactions with the Protovision computer thus far. The IT toads recommend that Lightman look for a back door— a simple password installed by the system’s creator allowing quick access regardless of how much extra security the end user might add later— and suggest that Falken’s Maze, the first game on the list, may be a clue David can use to find it. Lightman spends the next two weeks doing barely anything not directly related to the search. The Falken named in the game title turns out to be Professor Steven Falken (John Wood, of Citizen X), a computer scientist who spent the 60’s at the forefront of research on artificial intelligence. Falken’s Maze was one of the games that he developed with the aim of teaching computers how to learn. Interestingly, Falken was John McKittrick’s mentor (McKittrick even coauthored one of the journal articles David digs up at the library), and created the proto-AI that gave rise to WOPR— although naturally none of that means anything to David just yet. Still, Lightman initially takes Falken for a dead end. He died in 1973, so contacting him to fish for back door hints is obviously out of the question. In the end, it’s Jennifer who points David in the right direction, inspired by something she sees in Lightman’s research materials. The back door password is “Joshua,” the name of Falken’s son, killed along with his wife in an accident a few years before the scientist himself succumbed to cancer.
At this point, you should be able to see how Lightman’s story connects to the one unfolding at NORAD’s Cheyenne Mountain headquarters. The computer that David finally hacks into is not the Protovision network, but WOPR itself. WOPR mistakes David for Professor Falken, and when he asks it to play Global Thermonuclear War with him, all hell breaks loose. Not all of the moves and countermoves in their game show up on the big board in the war room at Cheyenne Mountain, but it only takes one volley of phantom missiles to get NORAD’s dander up. Clever though he is, David hasn’t covered his tracks half well enough to stump the FBI, and the next thing he knows, he’s in custody in McKittrick’s office under suspicion of espionage. Nobody seems to be buying his story about hacking WOPR by accident while trying to sneak a peak at a new generation of commercial computer games, but there’s a much bigger problem than that in the offing. WOPR still thinks it’s playing nuclear war with its deceased creator, and thanks to McKittrick and his automation scheme, there’s every chance that the computer will let fly with the whole Rocky Mountain Arsenal when the game reaches a point at which such action would be appropriate. Only David puts it together that the stakes are so high, however, and he’s about to be way too incarcerated to do anything about it. Fortunately, WOPR has let slip that Falken may be alive after all, hiding out under the name John Hume on an island off the coast of Oregon. If David can give the FBI, the military police, and who knows what other security forces the slip long enough to reach Goose Island, maybe he can get the real Steven Falken to set WOPR straight.
WarGames’ most audacious trick is that not even Falken can talk the computer down from destroying the world. The machine must get to that point all by itself after learning a lesson in futility via a few thousand solitaire rounds of tic-tac-toe. The parallels between nuclear war and that infamously pointless game are made horrifyingly clear in a climax that packs a seemingly impossible amount of suspense and dread into nothing but an accelerating cascade of animated images on the NORAD control room’s giant view screens. It shouldn’t work, especially since the outcome is completely outside the control of any of the movie’s characters. That’s rather the point, though. This movie portrays a scenario in which the people entrusted with waging the final war are forced into the same position of helplessness as the rest of us, and there’s a light but undeniable touch of “uh-huh… see how you like it, assholes” to that long concluding sequence of McKittrick, Beringer, and the rest waiting around anxiously, hoping that WOPR proves as unreliable as the human missile commanders it replaced.
Come to think of it, WarGames is chock full of things that shouldn’t work, but do anyway. The whole tone of the film is just bizarre, playful and maudlin by turns, jokey without ever going near the jet-black satire of Dr. Strangelove, and curiously optimistic about suggesting that the only hope for humanity is for the monstrous Cold War death machine to rise up one day and put the brakes on itself. It’s like a John Hughes remake of Colossus: The Forbin Project— complete with an electronic version of the Hughesian ending where the weird kid decides to stop letting herself be defined by her parents’ and peers’ expectations, and celebrates her newfound wisdom by becoming aggressively conformist!— yet it was made a whole year before Hughes spread out from screenwriting into directing. Which I guess makes WarGames— what? Not so much Sixteen H-Bombs as Fast Times at Forbin High? Meanwhile, there are plenty of desperate contrivances to keep the plot rolling, the biggest being the tour group from Birmingham that unwittingly furnishes David with his escape route from Cheyenne Mountain. (Apparently NORAD really did host tours in the early 80’s, but I can’t imagine just anybody being allowed onto them.) And WOPR’s filial affection for Falken, on which so much of the premise depends, ought to be enough to kill this movie outright.
But somehow none of that matters. There’s an authentically adolescent earnestness to WarGames that saves it on more than one occasion, not just in the sense that David and Jennifer are totally likable and believable characters, but in the film’s entire outlook. By focusing so much on the two kids, WarGames gives itself a legitimate excuse to overdo its emotional appeal, and director John Badham exploits it masterfully. Also vital to the movie’s success is its inexorable character logic, even if its plot logic leaves something to be desired. Everyone in this film feels like a real person, doing exactly what they would do under these sometimes far-fetched circumstances. And of course it helps that WarGames is a showcase for a lot of startlingly good acting. It was Matthew Broderick’s first starring role in a movie, but you’d never guess that from his performance. Ally Sheedy is terrific, too, although Jennifer ends up being mostly a foil for David (and in particular the in-film audience before whom he performs the clever tricks that get him into so much trouble later). This was the period when it seemed like Dabney Coleman was in everything, but watching his simultaneously genial and sinister rendition of McKittrick, you realize that he earned his overexposure honestly. Even Maury Chaykin and the usually insufferable Eddie Deezen make a fine showing for themselves in their one scene as David’s unfit-to-be-taken-out-in-public adult pals. All in all, these people make you believe in their world, even when it doesn’t quite act like the one we live in, and they make you care, too, whether it gets blown to bits in an outburst of heavily armed idiocy.
This review is part of a team-up between 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting and Checkpoint Telstar, the proprietor of which shares my queasy fascination with all things Cold War. Click the banner below for a complete list of the films we’re covering to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down.