Directed by John Badham
Written by Lawrence Lasker, Walter F. Parks
Starring: Matthew Broderick, Aly Sheedy, John Wood, Dabney Coleman, Barry Corbin
Tagline: Shall We Play?
Trivia: The NORAD set was the most expensive ever built for its time.
With the Eighties zeitgeist well in hand, WarGames skillfully blends teenage coming of age with the nuclear thriller. Credit a brilliant script for bringing both genres together. The story follows brilliant teenage computer hacker David Lightman (Matthew Broderick) who breaks into the NORAD defense system and nearly triggers a world war.
One of the first films to feature what became the internet, WarGames predicted so much of what the 21st Century would become. With all the stories in the news of countries hacking each other these days, it’s clear the wars of the future will be fought in the cyber landscape.
The film begins with a nail biting sequence at a nuclear silo stationed somewhere in America, following a two-man crew who must “turn the keys” to launch the missiles if ordered to do so. When they receive orders to launch, one of them freezes up and cannot turn the key (turns out it was a drill). When NORAD administrator McKittrick (Dabney Coleman) finds out he decides to take the decision out of human hands entirely and give it to a computer – few actors can play shifty bureaucrats better than Coleman.
When David and his friend Jennifer (Aly Sheedy) unknowingly break into the NORAD system they begin to play a game called “Global Thermal Nuclear War” and set up a target list. Meanwhile at NORAD, their computers mistakenly indicate Soviet missiles are incoming! Once the incident gets reported on the news, David is apprehended by the FBI who believe he’s a Soviet spy.
Badham builds up the suspense in the second half as government officials scramble to regain control of the missiles from the computer (a story reminiscent of Colossus: The Forbin Project from 1970) . To overt a total catastrophe they track down the computer’s creator Professor Falken (John Wood) in the hope he can reason with his own creation. David and Jennifer find him living as a hermit in Oregon, a whimsical genius who believes nuclear war is inevitable. He predicts bees will inherit the earth. Based on Stephen Hawking, Falken takes over the last half hour.
As revealed by the New York Times last year, WarGames had more influence than its makers could possibly have imagined. President Reagan screened the film and asked the Joint Chiefs to investigate whether NORAD could be hacked into, paving the way for the cyber security of today.
In many ways WarGames is even more relevant now. Unlike other Cold War films of the era, there’s no hint of anti-communism or East/West rivalry. Like Dr. Strangelove, WarGames reminds us that human and technological error could blow up the planet. However, unlike Dr. Strangelove, people and technology find a way to coexist in WarGames. Don’t forget the poignant line from the computer JOSHUA, “The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess”?