Dir. by John Badham - 1 hr. 54 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
If people don't hold it against "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" that it shows dated technology, then there's no reason to do so against films made in the 1980's, either. And once you've eliminated the fact that "WarGames" shows what was once cutting-edge technology as a source of derision, what you're left with is a damned fine film.
After a number of soldiers fail to "turn the key" in a real-life simulation of the beginning of World War III (in that no one knows it's a test as events proceed), McKittrick (Dabney Coleman) suggests taking that decision out of the soldiers' hands and automating the process. This will allow important decisions to be made "from the top down," not allowing the pangs of conscience from lower-ranking soldiers to keep big decisions from being carried out. Over objections from General Beringer (Barry Corbin), the plan moves forward. Meanwhile, in Seattle, we're introduced to David (Matthew Broderick), a gamer (Galaga!) who shows up late for school and doesn't get very good grades. Jennifer (Ally Sheedy) also fails the same science test that David has, but more because she's more interested in giggling with her girlfriends. Jennifer gives David a ride home on her scooter, where we discover that David doesn't have much parental supervision, and that he's a hacker. David feeds on Jennifer's attention, and breaks into the school computer system to fix their failing grades, thus avoiding summer school. One of his pet hacking projects is to try to figure out what a game company has been teasing in their print advertisements, and David ends up stumbling on a computer that doesn't identify itself, and quickly boots David out when he doesn't log in correctly. David does get a game list out of the computer, from which he is able to discern who made the program in the first place.
After some research (and I mean journals and microfiche research, not just Googling something), he's able to log in. David opts for a game called "Global Thermonuclear War," assuming it's just some kind of war simulation. Instead, he's managed to hack into the Department of Defense's system, and the same computer that's been tasked with controlling all the nuclear bombs in the U.S. is playing against him. Since David has chosen to play as the Soviet Union, it feeds information to the DoD computers indicating that the USSR has actually launched missles. The U.S. responds in kind, and suddenly, we're on the brink of an actual World War III.
There are several reasons why this movie works so well. First off, each of the character's motivations are crystal clear, and not muddied up. General Beringer is in charge of defending the United States; it's not complicated and confused by injecting politics into the mix. He believes that the U.S. military is up to the task, and therefore doesn't see the need to use technology to usurp their power. McKittrick is frustrated with the fact that decisions from the top aren't being carried out, and sees all of this amazing technology around him. He makes a logical conclusion, and tries to use computers to solve a very real problem. They're both dedicated to the same goal, united by Cold War-era fear. David is pretty much just trying to impress a girl with the skills he has at hand; his foresight extends about that far. And Jennifer is kind of over her head, enjoying David's peacocking, adding a positive attitude but little knowledge.
So when David blunders into something that he clearly didn't intend to happen, it sounds fishy to McKittrick. I'm not even sure if "hacking" was in the national lexicon in 1983, so the idea that someone would break into someone else's computer over a game is absurd. McKittrick's got an amazing piece of machinery in WOPR that can do amazing things, and he's also tasked with national security, so the answers that would make sense to him would have to do with espionage or warfare, not some dude showing off for his girlfriend and getting in over his head.
Another thing that works really well is the approach that Broderick takes with his character. If this movie was made now, the character would likely be written as a cocky, wise-cracking asshole who can get away with taking everything lightly because he's a fucking genius, and he knows it. You know, just like every other movie involving teenagers. Broderick's character is none of those things; he's not particularly socially well-adjusted (not tragically so, just a little awkward), he'd rather spend time alone playing games or dicking around on his computer than dealing with schoolwork (which is evidenced both by his grades and his kick-ass array of early-80's electronics), he's not anti-social or anti-authority, and he doesn't have any poker face to speak of. When he catches a TV news story about the initial misunderstanding that led to the military lowering the DEFCON rating, he's horrified. The inadvertent consequences to his actions are overwhelming, and for the bulk of the movie he's trying to think his way through a heavy fog of panic. There are consequences to his actions, and he takes them seriously.
There are other things that are great about this movie, too. The chief thing is that the story hums along, and it builds real tension. People get frustrated with each other, and it doesn't feel like it's just because they need to in order for the story to advance. Perhaps the biggest example of that is when David and Jennifer finally track down Professor Falken, who is not just waiting around for one more adventure. He's resigned to his fate, and doesn't seem to have much fight left in him. He doesn't just fall into line because David and Jennifer ask him to, it takes a real confrontation between them and then some for him to muster the will to act.
One last bit of praise for this film: beyond just being an entertaining and interesting piece of work, "WarGames" does pose a serious ethical question, appropriate for its time. Morally speaking, what are the consequences of separating action from consequence? That moral question is what kept many of the soldiers from launching the nuclear missiles in the first place - just because someone tells you to, are you obligated to turn a key, knowing that doing so will end in possibly millions of deaths? If you have that sort of power at your disposal, a certain number of people aren't going to be able to separate the action from the consequence, even knowing that failure to act will also result in the deaths of millions. This film's answer comes from WOPR, the computer that can learn. It decides that the only way to win "Global Thermonuclear War" is not to play in the first place. When there is no way to win, when there is no correct answer, you simply must not put yourself in the position to have to answer whether you can separate action from consequence in the first place.
5 / 5 - TV