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Enter David Lightman, a Seattle high school student with a penchant for mischievous behavior and a bedroom full of the latest high tech computer gadgetry. Trying to hack his way into an electronic games company to play titles not yet released, he inadvertently makes a connection to NORAD, though he doesn’t know it. With his new girlfriend by his side, and some frustrating research in the developer’s background, he boots up the program and a chilling, yet inviting computer-generated voice asks, “Shall we play a game?” Of course he does, and after chess doesn’t tempt, he chooses an intriguing title called Global Thermonuclear War. Soon after he’s attacking targets. Unknown to him, this triggers WOPR, which believes the game is real, and starts a countdown for retaliation.
This goes over very well with those in charge. So much so, they track Lightman down, throw him in a van and haul him to NORAD, treating him like a spy. They are not sure if what is happening is real or not, but don’t want to second guess and make a fool of themselves in front of the president.The adults bicker and meanwhile, Lightman escapes and meets up with his girlfriend as they track down the now reclusive designer of the system and try find a way to stop a total nuclear apocalypse.
Clever and sharply written, War Games pretty much set the standard for young smart-alec’s as heroes genre and does so with near perfection. Superbly directed and gleefully acted, it never takes itself too seriously, but still manages to create some almost unbearable tension, keeping things both intelligent but easily accessible. Glued together by Matthew Broderick’s charming performance along with Dabney Coleman at his finest, this movie is a winner from start to finish and a great rainy day rental.
David had been playing the hacked game of Global Thermonuclear War with his girlfriend Jennifer, believing it was only a game, when he had to cut it short to do his chores. The next day, he sees on the news how what he thought was only a computer game had actually alerted military services and prompted a national alert. Panicked, he quickly talks with Jennifer over the phone and then tries to hide evidence when he gets an unexpected call.
Despite the dramatic opening, the film till this point has been mostly light with some fun moments as we learn about David and Jennifer. They are typical teens, though David is clearly exceptional but under-challenged. Suddenly, it all gets real as he sees – maybe for the first time – that his actions have significant consequence. This is reflected in his fear and body language, where he is on new ground and feeling utterly vulnerable. It’s a little shattering for him and us as we’ve come to know him as one step ahead and able to out smart anyone.
The ’80s were a breeding ground for films of whiz kids (typically boys) with exceptional talent that got themselves into big trouble. The Manhattan Project, Weird Science, Real Genius, Space Camp, Flight of the Navigator, and even Broderick’s own Ferris Bueller’s Day Off are just a few. War Games remains the jumping off point for this genre and is often considered the finest. Director John Badham spins an intrigue tale and keeps the tension high and believable despite the implausibility of the plot. As these scene demonstrates, it’s the likable character and the expectation of a problem to be solved that keeps us interested.
Matthew Brodrick had a big year in 1983 being cast in two films, both basically being his debut. His unique style, good looks and infectious smile made him an instant favorite and he went on to become an icon of ’80s teen movies. With War Games, that playful persona is cemented and it would be his calling card for a few more films, most finely-tuned in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. He’s had great success afterward of course, but will always be best known for this period.
War Games is really a great place for him to start. The story demands a young actor with a lot of presence, but would have been forgettable if cast with a Hollywood hunk or proven action star. Broderick has a special kind of charm that allows us to believe he is confidently intelligent but also a kid you want to hang out with. This was the downfall of The Manhattan Project, a fine film in its own right, but the youngster (Christopher Collet) was portrayed as too put-offish and cocky, and left audiences more interested in the bomb than him.
The threat of nuclear war was a pretty common concern in the eighties. The Russians were the big scare in so many American films and television programming it became a punchline. War Games doesn’t sugar coat the hyperbole. The entire premise is about Russia raining their entire nuclear arsenal upon the United States, even it all takes place in the computer memory of a misguided American military computer. It’s hard to believe now, but there was an arms race escalating to ridiculous proportions in those days, and the media fed on that fear with some pretty terrifying results.
War Games doesn’t mince words about it’s message and the futility of it all either, but does present some intriguing thoughts as we go along. First, just how much of the defense of any country should be controlled by computers? Is taking people out of the equation a good idea? In the film, McKittrick argues that there is no time for a rational leader to make the necessary decisions, and that computers that have been programmed to calculate and respond should take over once the process begins.
The next thought is about human extinction. At one point in the film, David and Jennifer make it to Goose Island where the reclusive Dr. Falken is living after the government faked his death. He is the original programmer of the early stages of WOPR and developed the system that can learn from its mistakes. With his wife and son both deceased, he has little to live for and spends his time thinking about the long distant past – dinosaurs in fact. He isn’t afraid of a nuclear war to end all wars. He thinks nature has no favorites, and when it finishes with one dominant species, moves on to the next. Bees in this case, he says, will be the next logical step.
The movie works well because it doesn’t assume the audience is ignorant and at the same time avoids bogging down the script with nonsense computer jargon while still being incredibly intelligent feeling. David could have easily spent a majority of time spewing out streams of computer-speak to Jennifer but instead lets actions tell the story and guides us along on a very convincing story. Sure, in hindsight we suspect a lot of it is implausible, but it’s sold to us so well, we never question what we’re seeing. Take for instance a wonderful moment when Jennifer discovers (along with us) what David is up to in his bedroom computer as he explains how he can hack into other systems.
In the wrong hands, this could have been a lot of exposition using terms and vocabulary to confound and attempt to impress, but instead is a simple exchange that still leaves us in wonder and propels it earnestly. Watch Jennifer’s face as she soaks up just how savvy her new friend is. She is a reflection of the audience, and she carries us along with such spirit and enthusiasm, we get giddy.
Computer hackers have had a long often unstable history in film. Tron came out just before War Games, but the two serve as the beginnings, with War Games arguably standing out as the real root of the genre. What we see on screen is undoubtedly impossible, as with most hacker stories, but serves as a kind of road map for how all future films of the like were made, with the bad boy (hacking is illegal) redeemed by his skills uncovering or fixing a fatal plan, often by more nefarious baddies. What’s interesting about these, and especially with War Games, is that we can see that David is really a miscreant, who is generally up to no good. He is just short of a hoodlum in class, disrespecting his teachers and wasting his fellow student’s time. He manipulates the system for his own gain and ignores the pleas of a girl he just met who doesn’t want any part (initially) of his scheming. He has an awkward relationship with his parents, which seems like something out of a 50s sitcom while he is in the same room with them, and obsesses, to the point of missing days of school, over besting the security of a computer program he has illegally hacked into.
Yet we can’t ever think of him as bad. In the real world, it’d be a different story, but here we like him more and more with every passing scene. Why?
First, it’s his cleverness. We want to be clever. Some of us are. Most of us aren’t. So there is a joy in watching people figure things out in movies. We love those ‘ah-ha’ moments in the story when something comes together and the hero(es) finally sees the big picture or solves the looming mystery. That’s why we cling so fondly to David. We know he is bad, but redemption is coming. It has to. That is the formula and director Badham delivers in spades.
Second, we trust him. It’s an implied relationship between him and the audience. Unlike the unreliable narrators in many popular films, such a Fight Club, Rashôman, or even Forrest Gump, David paves a clear path along a specific arch we know will lead happily to his enlightenment and our immense satisfaction. Even characters in the movie seem to know this. Falken, the programmer of the very computer causing all the ruckus, in the film’s brilliant, tension-filled climax, nods to David and allows him to lead everyone out of the dark.
In the end, everyone learns a valuable lesson about the hopelessness of nuclear war. How that is revealed is witty and equally astonishing in a final scene that is breathlessly good. Elevating this movie in every way is the great Dabney Coleman, who is outstanding as the genius watching his life’s work crumble around him. He plays John McKittrick straight and never moves to parady as his counterpart, played by the equally talented Barry Corbin does as General Jack Beringer. The two are dynamic in every scene they are in and further keep the story feeling real.