WARGAMES (John Badham, 1983)
Underachieving Seattle high school student David Lightman (Matthew Broderick) wants to get a sneak peek at a computer company’s revolutionary upcoming games in WARGAMES. Using a slow but methodical automated dialing program he finds what he believes is their system, but the log-on command proves unpassable for the time being.
Eventually David hacks into the other computer and pulls up a list of games. He ignores standbys like chess and poker for the more tantalizing option labelled Global Thermonuclear War. Along with his friend Jennifer Mack (Ally Sheedy), they elect to play the game as the Soviet Union and pick Las Vegas and their hometown as targets.
Little do they know that David has accessed the War Operation Plan Response (WOPR) supercomputer at NORAD Combat Operations Center at Cheyenne Mountain. With 22 percent of missile commanders failing to launch ICBMs during simulation tests, WOPR has recently taken over the job of carrying out such orders if they are transmitted. What David thinks is a game may be putting the world on the brink of mutually assured destruction.
As a Cold War message movie and cinematic descendent of FAIL-SAFE, WARGAMES examines the inherent danger in favoring technology’s cool logic and situational calculations over mankind’s potential second guessing when called upon to press buttons and flip switches that will result in killing millions. Even the best designed systems are susceptible to unexpected weaknesses. A clever member of the general public can infiltrate WOPR. The computer can’t be overridden when running scenarios. Powering down the machine at such a time tells it that the opponent’s attack has been successful and thus initiates a counterstrike.
Director John Badham and screenwriters Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes sprinkle other examples of imperfect systems throughout WARGAMES. David’s father would seem to have come upon the most efficient way to butter bread and corn on the cob: rub the buttered bread on the vegetable. Yet he doesn’t achieve the desired result if, as occurs here, the corn has not been cooked. David escapes custody at NORAD because of human and technical vulnerabilities. David uses forceps and a miniature cassette recorder to defeat an electronic lock, but even that wouldn’t matter if the solider on guard didn’t lose focus when flirting with a nurse in the infirmary. David also employs an aluminum can’s pull tab to make a free call from a pay phone. From the unimportant system to the critical, somewhere there is a hole to be exploited, try as the designers might to eliminate them.
While WARGAMES worries that the human race may foolishly bring about its own extinction, the film also demonstrates warmth toward people and their flaws. In the prototypical role for his screen personality, Broderick displays intelligence and good-natured roguishness that can have adverse consequences despite his intentions. David may be too smart for his own good, but his infectious enthusiasm and drive to fix the mess he’s made are innately human and make him all the more endearing.
The same applies to Sheedy, who shares an easy chemistry with Broderick. Her character often misses the larger picture for smaller observations. When David tells her about the computer programmer, she’s most attuned to the scientist’s physical attractiveness. Jennifer is understandably concerned when TV news reports on the computer breach, yet she also asks David if she can share the story with a friend. In a funny bit that reflects the capacity to mistake everything about oneself, she meets David in Colorado after he begs for her to buy him a plane ticket and wonders if his dilemma is related to changing grades on the school server.
Setting aside the moral warning WARGAMES issues about the nuclear arms race, it functions as a terrific thriller. The tense opening scene in the nuclear silo with two missile commanders communicates what is at stake on micro and macro levels. The pressure on David to bring the game to a non-disastrous conclusion and on NORAD officials to act appropriately with limited but alarming information is felt for nearly every moment. The climax, with the blossoming of missiles on the command center’s maps, serves as a chilling reminder of what could be if the wrong chain of events are triggered.
As a member of a generation that grew up worrying about nuclear war, WARGAMES still makes quite an impact nearly thirty years after its release because it taps into those fears so well. At some point in the 1980s I remember the Dayton Daily News printing a map with concentric circles, probably centered on likely target Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, that showed the effects a nuclear attack would have on the area. Understandably this freaked me out as a kid. Does WARGAMES have the same effect on those whose formative years have come after the fall of the Soviet Union? Obviously I can’t say unequivocally, but the film holds up as a nail-biting thriller and a lesson on entrusting too much faith to technology.