A great thriller that has a lot of trouble concealing its controversial political agenda.
Directed by John Badham
Written by Lawrence Lasker, Walter Parkes, and Walon Green
With Matthew Broderick (David), Ally Sheedy (Jennifer), Dabney Coleman (Dr. McKittrick), and John Wood (Prof. Falken)
Spoiler alert: severe
First things first: if "WarGames" is not the single worst possible way to render that title, it's only because if it had been made just a decade and a half later, three of those eight characters would have been numerals instead of letters. And it's thoughts like that that keep me awake at night.
WarGames is a great movie, though, and despite a thoroughgoing marination in the ambience of 1983 that leaves it a stunningly specific time capsule depicting the primitive Internet (then quite futuristic), it remains an adventure that could be enjoyed in any year. It is breathlessly paced and expertly played by two of the best teen actors who ever lived—even if, regrettably, neither of them ever proved to be half as good as an adult (Election conspicuously excepted). And WarGames is probably as close to Hitchcock as a director could get without consciously willing himself into the mode, though there's a lot of evidence that Badham is doing exactly that. Surely, if he wasn't at least a bit of a De Palma fan, I'd be surprised: we all saw that 360 degree shot around the big computer with all those groovy red lights. In fact, we saw both of them.
Oh, and of course, it has one of the single most justifiably famous endings of all time.
It's sometimes credited as the first cyberthriller, and it is at least—to the best of my research—the first of the hacking microgenre, though at least two films prefigure it by years. One's The Italian Job '69, which apparently features thrilling cyber-elements; the other is actually much more of a piece with modern hacking movies, even though it came out three decades ahead, before DARPANet itself was a dream, and which we'll be talking about real soon.
There's also Scanners, which I don't think counts as a cyberthriller, because hacking with telekinesis doesn't count. Then there's World on a Wire, which is where the line of descent diverges, with one taxonomic group becoming virtual reality thrillers, a different subgenre entirely that crosses through the hard science fiction of the hacking film and rarely halts before crashing straight through into outright science fantasy. With Tron and The Matrix thus cleaved away, WarGames can claim the distinction of being the most beloved and—I suspect—the very best of its own very particular breed, though this is not necessarily the highest honor that could be awarded a film whose burliest competitors are Swordfish and a Michael Mann movie that hasn't even been released yet. It's half out of concern for the sub-subgenre's weakness that we don't hesitate too much to let WarGames in, despite the very real danger that the unexamined fantastic elements of the work—namely, the artificial intelligence at the heart of it—really ought to technically bar it from that classification altogether.
So let's meet David: he is the organic intelligence at the heart of WarGames, and thus must be a callow nerd who's spending his young adulthood playing too many video games. But unlike this callow nerd at least, he retains enough Broderickesque charm to attract Jennifer, a young lady played by the lovely Ally Sheedy. Also completely unlike me, he has significant aptitude for mathematics and computer science, an aptitude he demonstrates through the impressive hacking skills that would serve him in excellent stead three years later, in John Hughes' tonally divergent sequel.
But for the present, they're practically a curse. At first, it's nothing more than altering his failing grade in biology—and surreptitiously doing the same for Jennifer, in a clear bid for her biology that ultimately succeeds. (It does initially repulse her moral principles, but this is before she realizes that success and happiness are far sweeter—and at such a precocious age!).
However, no sooner than he's seduced her with the baud of his modem, has he semi-accidentally broken into NORAD's artificially-intelligent, wargaming supercomputer. And once David's in, what other choice—as a callow nerd—could he possibly have made? Naturally, he challenges the world's most flawless opponent to a contest of—oh, you've seen this before haven't you?—GLOBAL THERMONUCLEAR WAR.
If you blame him, you don't understand human nature.
It all sounds harmless enough, especially if you missed the prologue to the film, which relates the failed exercise that led the president to replace the USAF's cowardly ICBM crews with emotionless computer tyranny. Going toe-to-toe with the Russkies in nuclear combat is now the duty of WOPR, the same supercomputer David has infiltrated. And while this is pretty bad, it still wouldn't be that bad—except when WOPR is asked if Global Thermonuclear War is a game or reality, it responds, "What's the difference?"
Now, it'd be criminal not to discuss that prologue, which is so iconic that "TURN YOUR KEY, SIR" is still shouted on message boards, Facebooks and street corners to this very day. (Or, perhaps, I simply run in the circles of the Old.) It's a truly beautiful gambit: opening the film with a test run for World War III, that neither we nor its subjects know is a test run. We all react accordingly: the result is a sense of foreboding and dissonance that outlasts the movie itself.
This otherwise perfect sequence and its aftermath are undermined only slightly by the decision not to cut directly from the decision to recommend taking the men out of the loop to the close-up of David's game of Galaga, seen no more than three shots down the road. Since that would have been pure fucking genius, and Badham preferred to take an exceptionally mediocre road instead, we cut to an equally abrupt but entirely unrelated (and entirely boring) establishing shot of Seattle. And then an establishing shot of the arcade. Because you know what people would be wholly unable to grasp without images of the Space Needle and some high school-age extras? The entire Goddamned story, apparently. (At least the worst editing of the movie is out of the way in the first fifteen minutes.)
But, I have to say, the prologue is undermined quite a bit more when we see both airmen alive and well half an hour later, with neither one's brains even slightly plastered over his console. This later scene is so nonchalant, as it unwinds every bit of the prior sequence's inherent suspense, that it can be justly accused of being totally unaware that it had any.
"I GUESS MY THREATS ARE EMPTY, SIR."
The bulk of the film is necessarily David trapped in something akin to a wrong man thriller, except that he really did do pretty much everything he's charged with short of the actual espionage. In any event, McKittrick, filling the role of the hardnosed engineer who just doesn't understand the value of humanity, won't listen to a word of his explanations. Thus, David breaks out of NORAD, via mad skillz and a heaping helping of plot contrivance—oh please, NORAD does not allow tour groups—and, phreaking along the way, he goes to supplicate himself before the WOPR's creator, Professor Falken. He hopes he will listen, but Falken turns out to be a nihilistic old man whose personal losses have led him to believe some very wrong things about dinosaurs.
The single minor way in which WarGames cannot be enjoyed today just as much as in 1983 is in Falken's lecture to David and Jennifer vis-a-vis the KT extinction event. For all I know, this might have been just as ignorant even then, but is laughable now; and it becomes downright idiotic in any time period, when he starts declaring a teleological drive to the forces of evolution (the upshot is that it wants humans dead). On the other hand, he is still grieving over the death of his family, and clearly has been rendered half-insane by the emotion. Note particularly John Wood's utterly weird, half-grinning facial reactions to the prospect of real-life Global Thermonuclear War, even after David and Jennifer have convinced him through—well, nothing, really, now that I think about it, just whining and throwing his dead kid in his face—and Falken is actively trying to avert the catastrophe.
(As one further piece of trivia on Falken, Jennifer's odd line that he's outrageously hot in his old newsreel footage makes a lot more sense—with all due respect to Wood—when you learn that originally the producers wanted to cast John Lennon. That itself seems, at first blush, like a terrible idea. But in any event, it demystifies the movie a little bit in a very unfortunate way. I found it far more interesting that Jennifer's primary character trait, besides a vague athleticism, was an attraction to reasonably handsome older men with rawboned features and slightly buggy eyes—a sexual preference that's found its fullest expression in our modern era, with the advent of Benedict Cumberbatch.)
1983's Sexiest Man Alive.
WarGames' NORAD has become the most famous work of production design in Cold War cinema short of the precursor to which it owes an enormous debt, Ken Adam's war room from Dr. Strangelove itself. It's noted on IMDB's trivia page as the most expensive set ever built up to that time, at $1 million; this is a claim I find extremely dubious, principally because it's false. The Pinewood set that the selfsame Mr. Adam designed for The Spy Who Loved Me was, after all, infamously built for no less than $1.8 million, in unadjusted dollars, six years earlier. Perhaps they meant "in America"; and I doubt very much that is true, given that Cecil B. DeMille is not just a urban legend.
Stately NORAD! Cost: no man can say!
In any event, the structure, essentially an actual office building built to spec, and filled with detailed and apparently-explosive computer consoles and fronted by those enormous monitor displays, undoubtedly cost a lot. (Hell, the simple act of animating all those hundreds of frames of tic-tac-toe and GTW must have cost quite a bit.) It is also undoubtedly the most impressive achievement of production designer Angelo Graham's career. I do wish this meant something more, for it is, objectively, quite impressive. Graham's work as an art director had included Apocalypse Now and The Godfather: Part II; but his most notable work as a designer after WarGames—his very first PD gig—is probably Mrs. Doubtfire. I suppose it was, er, handsome.
WarGames' climax may not be terrifically sensical, expecting the learning computer to simply give up its thermonuclear game, based solely on the lessons in futility it gleans from humanity's most miserably boring pastime. In fact, a great deal in WarGames may compress quite a bit under scrutiny.
But it is all sensical enough, and emotionally and visually it is pristine. Essentially, the climax is unassailable as a work of filmmaking—cruelly snatching its false resolution away, with the introduction of our heroes' true challenge to teach the machine, at which point Badham fills the frame with wargame and children's game imagery that all comes so fast and blinding it becomes abstract, even phantasmogoric. And the movie knows when to end; that is, before David is once again hauled off in irons, only this time taken out behind the chemical sheds and shot.
But despite its effectiveness as fiction, I elect not to ignore the half-truths that comprise WarGames' essential program. Namely this: the equation of a nuclear struggle with tic-tac-toe is simplistic enough to be spurious. Whether it's dangerously spurious or not is ultimately a philosophical decision that I don't seek to make for you, and it's unlikely you'd let me anyway.
The climax of WarGames is the perfect version of what it is and I wouldn't change a word—though I might, were I an art director, think twice about implying that American and Soviet commanders would have gleefully and pointlessly targeted so many cities in the Southern Hemisphere during a first strike.
But WarGames is also best understood as nothing less than the most expertly distilled version of nuclear panic ever devised. It is excused, in part if not in full, by its vintage, when mutually assured destruction was real, and not a mere figment of the public's imagination, as it was in the 1950s and as it is again today. Even within the context of 1983, it was nothing but the basest hysteria to assume that the human race would literally cease to be (it wouldn't) or that even the American, European, and Soviet peoples would be exterminated (they also wouldn't). This could only be the case if the overt goal of any nuclear war, sought by both sides, was to annihilate every last person on the face of the Earth. And even Curtis LeMay would concede that such a campaign would have only marginal strategic value.
Thus we can say this: WarGames is not just an endlessly entertaining and endlessly effective work—it is one of the greatest pieces of propaganda ever put to film.