It isn’t easy to imminent nuclear Armageddon fun. By the sound of it, WarGames wouldn’t have become the fifth biggest movie (in the US) of 1983 if original director Martin Brest had not been fired from his more serious take on the tale of a computer geek who accidentally hacks into NORAD and nearly starts WWIII. The premise is deliriously hi-concept, but Brest appeared to have something in mind that was closer to the tone Alan J Pakula’s ’70s conspiracy pictures. When reliable pair of hands John Badham stepped into the breach it became something else. WarGames retained its essentials – that is, a surprisingly smart and occasionally very witty exlploration of the absurdity of the Cold War nuclear stalemate – but added a lightness of touch.
1983 is really where we begin to see ’80s, Reagan era cinema solidifying. E.T. is in the rear-view mirror, and the nascent (post-Jaws) blockbuster mentality has fully taken hold. From here, there will be a tendency to superficiality rather than substance. Obviously (alternatively, one might say ‘twas ever thus), I’m generalising; there would be no shortage of fine Hollywood movies over the next seven years, many in response to the prevailing political climate. But to wit my point, Martin Brest’s next project was the wafer-thin Beverly Hills Cop.
If you look at ’80s cinema, there are fewer pure “zeitgeist” moments than in the previous decade. It was easier to manufacture appetite for a picture and persuade an audience to swallow it. Tapping into prevailing trends and making something successful was trickier. To an extent, the personality-based rise of Eddie Murphy and Tom Cruise reflects this, particularly in Cruise’s shallow endorsement of me-first in the likes of Risky Business (young man and hookers) and Top Gun (young man and military hardware; you need to look to the decade’s bookends for the actor in more interesting war-based pictures, Taps and Born on the Fourth of July). When pictures with their finger on the pulse did arrive (Fatal Attraction, Working Girl) they were too processed to really resonate beyond the surface level.
So WarGames stands out as something of an exception; there were plenty of pictures out there addressing topical themes, but precious few that became breakout hits on quite that level. Badham’s film taps into not one but two such threads. The first of these was the computer, or rather the home computer. This was the era of ZX Spectrums and Commodore 64s, and the boom in arcade games. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that the mercurial Spielberg didn’t make WarGames; he was probably kicking himself, which might explain why he has ’80s gaming nostalgia fest Ready Player One lined up.
It probably felt like there were a lot of similarly themed movies out there at the time. There was a TV series, Whiz Kids, which lasted a season as a quick cash-in on the rising interest in all-things computer. And there was The Last Starfighter, profiting off the gaming trend, with Weird Science on the John Hughes side. But it’s more difficult to make a hit from popular trends than it seems. Oliver Stone should know; Wall Street ‘s antagonist became an icon, but the movie itself did only decent rather than spectacular business.
WarGames’ alchemy comes from marrying an idea that tends looks better on paper than celluloid (a hacker hacks stuff, but what; 1995’s Hackers showed there aren’t too many spins on the premise that work) to the pervading blot on the landscape of the period. The ’70s détente with the Soviet Union had given way to a new rhetoric when Ronnie Reagan took office. He favoured extreme language, denouncing “the evil empire” and fuelling tensions. A nuclear sunset shimmered back into focus like it hadn’t since the early 1960s.
How real the threat actually was is sort of irrelevant*; it was perceived to be so, and that was more than enough. It has been said the US grossly overstated the threat from USSR aggression and understated its reluctance to use such weapons, which probably suited the arms manufacturers just fine (and that’s before one gets into some of the more high-end conspiracy theories about the western bankers behind the communist edifice).
The doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) had ensured that, if superpowers could match each other nuke for nuke (or thereabouts), there would never be any danger of firing the damn things. Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative (“Star Wars”; this was the era for appropriating movie terminology, one where WarGames was shown to Ronnie and he initiated policy based on its contents), announced three months before WarGames release (as was his evil empire speech) only exacerbated the unease with a president who didn’t just favour posturing, he was actively belligerent (he’d invoke Rambo, for goodness sake). This aggression has now been rewritten as a stroke of genius, the wily old goat engineering the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Who knew, huh?
Dr Strangelove must have seemed like the last word on the absurdity and futility of nuclear war. It certainly hasn’t been topped. But even before Reagan began putting out fire with gasoline, the less incendiary side of the nuclear industry was provoking concerns. The Three Mile Island nuclear accident occurred in 1979, twelve days after The China Syndrome was released. The dangers of the nuclear industry slowly came into focus, and it took until 2012 for new permits to be issued for reactors. Ironically, in the aftermath of Fukushima, a disaster that just won’t go away (despite media attempts to brush it under the carpet), many nations (including Britain) appear to banging the drum once more for nuclear.
Has the nuclear threat swum regained potency? Not a bit of it. The Godzilla remake singularly failed to run with the original’s nuclear subtext (even making the dangers of radioactive fallout seem nothing to worry about, as long as you have a super monster to absorb it all). Filmmakers in the ’80s, in contrast, still wore the social conscience of the ‘60s, just about, even if bore an increasingly pecuniary face, as identified by 1983’s The Big Chill.
The same year still, Silkwood came out, based on a true story. It proved to be a surprise hit, tapping into fears in a manner that was both uncompromising and deeply unsettling. The real gut punches came from TV, though. Within a year of each other, transatlantic takes on a the big one being dropped appeared in the US (The Day After, also ’83, form Star Trek II hand Nicholas Meyer) and Threads (from Mick Jackson who went on to, er… The Bodyguard).
Badham delivered a sugar-coated pill, and so managed to address a disturbing subject in a palatable fashion. Lawrence Lasker and Walter F Parkes even lifted the mad computer concept from 1968’s Colossus: The Forbidden Project in a much more family-friendly fashion. It might be tempting to single out the WarGames for not proving heavy hitting when stood next to such peers, but it’s achievement is getting a sizeable audience to think about these subjects without dwelling on the ickier stuff (the following year’s Repo Man gathers up many similar ideas in more scattershot fashion, but was only ever going to be a cult rave).
When Lasker and Parkes first came up with their idea for what became WarGames in 1979, it was a very different beast. Inspired by Stephen Hawking it featured a dying genius and a smart kid. It sounds fairly crummy, truth be told, but that kernel morphs into David (Matthew Broderick) and Falken (John Wood) in the final feature. It appears the nuclear concept came well into the process, certainly after the hacking device had been decided (at one point they had a threat from a space-based defence laser run by an AI; one wonders if Reagan had been reading their scripts).
Steve: Turn your key, sir.
The key to WarGames sticking is a veneer of verisimilitude. There’s just enough to prevail against the more extravagant aspects (their later Sneakers would be slightly less cavalier). The opening scene helps enormously in this regard, with a pre-fame Michael Madsen (his first role) and John Spencer required to turn the launch key when a nuclear strike is requested. It’s Spencer’s “old” hand who refuses to do his bit, even with a gun trained on him (no ear slicing, though); “Screw the procedure. I want someone on the goddam phone before I kill 20 million people”.
It’s a pitch-perfect place setter, even going to the trouble of establishing the divide between yesteryear’s halcyon hippy ideals and the subservient now (Spencer’s girlfriend chants to encourage her flowers to grow; Madsen’s instruction-friendly punk has no frame of reference for such concepts). Like much of the picture, if you choose to pull it apart, it’s logically inconsistent; why are the missile silos opening if it is just a drill (they aren’t, it’s a cheat) and how does Madsen expect to fire the missiles if he has blown Spencer’s head off?
It’s also probably the most straightforwardly dramatic scene in the picture; just the act of introducing teenagers to an adult world shifts the scale and tone. One could imagine the first five minutes are closer to what Brest had in mind. We learn 22% of commanders failed to launch their missiles during test drills. With those stakes established, it’s easier to swallow the major leap required; that there would be agreement to take the men out of the loop and turn the launch over to machines. This is basically Skynet, a year before Cameron envisaged the apocalypse, and WOPR (“War Operation Plan Response”, as opposed to BIGMAC) is a less power-mad version of Colossus. Everything’s going to be quite okay, quite safe, as it’s only “once the president decides, the computer should take over”.
Curiously, for an ostensibly left-leaning picture, Badham and co come down on the side of the military. Yes, WOPR comes to the only logical conclusion at the end (“The only winning move is not to play”), suggestive of unilateral disarmament. Yet there’s an essential and surprising optimism in human nature here, even at the conditioned level of the US military; it’s the old hand who’s reluctant to fire in the first scene, and the referenced stats suggest a fifth of dutifully brainwashed military personnel will question orders.
As buffoonish as General Jack Beringer (Barry Corbin) is, replete with colourful vernacular (pissing on spark plugs and all), his doubts about WOPR are shown to be correct. We’ve seen the broad, redneck soldier in an apocalypse scenario before (Slim Pickens in Dr Strangelove), and truth be told Corbin’s performance works a little too much against the tension at key moments (we’re never less than aware that his is a “performance” general), but he is framed as on the right side of a “nothing can go wrong” scenario.
If you add in a NORAD that is astonishingly easy to escape from, and spooks who don’t instantly snuff out David when he’s caught (the original ending where he goes to work for them actually seems the most likely and only one where he is permitted to get out intact), and it’s science gone awry that’s the real danger.
Sure, it’s at the beck and call of the combative, but science’s lack of an ethical component leads to nuclear weapons and it leads to super computers without a moral compass. WOPR “Spends all its time thinking about World War III”, “plays endless series of war games”, and “estimates damage, counts the dead, makes key decisions”. A computer that exists to plays games is easily matched by a disaffected youth who exists to play games. David doesn’t have the daddy issues of WOPR/Joshua, but there’s a clear invitation to discover maturity for both the sparring juniors.
David is readily identified as a “classic case for recruitment by the Soviets”, such is a paranoid apparatus capable of seeing reds everywhere. He’s an intelligent underachiever with few friends, alienated from his parents, and “He does this sort of thing for fun”. David’s the respectable face of a character that never really took off, although Pauline Kael understandably suspected the computer nerd would be a big thing.
Generally, they would be more present on TV (most notably The Lone Gunmen in The X-Files, with a heavy dose of even more anti-social conspiracy theorising added into the mix). Here, Malvin (Eddie Deezen) leads the charge, informed of his irritating ways by colleague Jim Sting (Maury Chaykin). NORAD even has its very own computer nerd tending to WOPR.
Broderick never possessed the natural cool of Michael J Fox, even though he played the most assured protagonist of the era a few years later (Bueller, anyone?) 1983, with this, Risky Business and The Outsiders, represents the dawn of the ’80s teen protagonist. Movies in previous years were too disparate to form any kind of youth movement (from Carrie, to The Blue Lagoon, to Fame to Taps to Porky’s) but subsequently there was no stopping them. If Tron had happened a few years later, no way would thirty-year-old Jeff Bridges have been the lead.
Broderick is great, or was great, at a certain nerdy confidence, and managed to maintain that energy through up until somewhere around the time of Roland Emmerich’s maligned Godzilla. Now that his career has stabilised into the kind of downtrodden (middle-aged) roles he previously subverted, it’s easy to forget what a confident and prepossessing performer he was. He carries WarGames effortlessly, essaying a kid who’s cheekier than wholly rebellious (“Your wife?” David responds to a teacher asking who first suggested the idea of reproduction without sex). He makes if feasible that Ally Sheedy would be into him, because he’s not that geeky; because he does things he shouldn’t, like breaking into the school computer and changing his and her grade (that’s the stuff of a thousand teen tearaway dreams right there), he eludes the pitfalls of Malvin.
McKittrick: There’s no way that a high school punk can put a dime in a telephone and break into our system.
That’s the other part of War Games; it inspired a generation of computer geeks. Not that they probably really need much persuasion, but for a brief time it gave some prestige to an unglamorous pastime. Badham captures a portentously uneasy thrill when David first contacts Joshua and comes across a list of games that spans from Chess to Theatre Wide Tactical Warfare, Theatre Wide Biotoxic and Chemical Warfare, and Global Nuclear Warfare (wouldn’t it have been “interesting” if David had chosen to play the second to last?) The eagerness with which he decides, “I’ll be the Russians” and opts to nuke Las Vegas and Seattle is both funny and chilling.
WOPR/Joshua: Shall we play a game?
David: Love to. How about Global Nuclear Warfare?
WOPR/Joshua: Wouldn’t you prefer a good game of chess?
Attempt what David does today, or discover a secret space program from the comfort of your bedroom, and you face life extradition and life imprisonment.
WarGames was instrumental in persuading the US Government to implement more robust legislation to safeguard their cyber rights. It led to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (someone somewhere has probably suggested the movie was devised purely to legitimise just such an act). If the sleights of hand in the picture, from actually breaking into the NORAD system, to Joshua’s ability to speak, are a big swallow, the mantra “I don’t believe that any system is totally secure” is a persuasive one. Particularly with the then concurrent case of the 414s, hackers who broke into such systems as the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
What of the Hawking figure who sparked the writers? He’s introduced mysteriously, the tantalisingly mythological figure who wrote Poker & Armageddon: The Art of Bluffing in a Nuclear Standoff. He designed WOPR/Joshua (the name of his deceased son) and then “died” a decade earlier. David finds Falken rather easily, and the character’s obsession with extinction feels rather rote (comparing humans to dinosaurs and secluding himself to await the inevitable).
This section of the picture is a bit lumpy, truth be told, when it should be the kind of stirring meeting of minds that emboldens the third act. Badham even throws in (courtesy of Tom Mankiewvicz) a rather limp discussion of the end of the world between David and Jennifer. Badham takes the blame here, pushing for it as a vital character beat. It feels artificial, foisted on the picture – which it was – and nursed to retching fruition with a particularly insipid harmonica accompaniment from Arthur B Rubinstein.
Falken: General, you are listening to a machine. Do the world a favour and don’t act like one.
What saves Falken is casting. John Wood (he also voices Joshua) is a marvellously vital and eccentric figure. He has the frame and tone of Benedict Cumberbatch if he went back in time 15 years from now to become an actor in the early ’80s. Once they arrive at NORAD, Falken’s assertive dismissiveness of the general apparatus and authority (in particular Dabney Coleman’s McKittrick; “I see the wife still picks your ties”) is infectious, particularly as it comes while mentoring David to lead by intuition.
General Beringer: After very careful consideration, sir, I’ve come to the conclusion that your new defence system sucks.
This type of movie usually collapses in the third act. WarGames is actually thematically coherent, even if it ends with the computer making a joke. Lasker and Parkes cleverly structure a false dawn, whereby the new arrivals convince the NORAD personal that the first strike is just an illusion. All seems well… until Joshua attempts to seize control of the launch codes and fire the missiles himself. It’s at this point that the picture reverses the modern blockbuster trend. Instead of an explosive climax (they could have blown up NORAD, rather than the World, I guess), Lasker and Parkes run with a more cerebral one.
Jennifer: The game is pointless.
Falken: Exactly back in the war room they believe you can win a nuclear war, there can be acceptable losses.
True, this isn’t rocket science, but it is satisfying. The Tic-Tac-Toe (or Noughts and Crosses as it’s more accurately called) has been introduced as a concept sufficiently early that reimplementing doesn’t feel artificial at this juncture. And works coherently as a metaphor for the pointlessness of the arms race (although some might say it merely evidences the necessity of the stalemate of escalating and equal defences); there’s no way you can win that game. The child can also be seen to develop the wisdom its more combative human masters lack.
WOPR/Joshua: A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.
Joshua’s “How about a nice game of chess” is a bit of an “I’m quite alright now” goofiness, particularly since he will now no doubt be decommissioned and turned into scrap. One could probably get away with a slightly unresolved sense in a movie like this (Raiders of the Lost Ark does it with the fate of the ark), but it’s a delicately navigable field, nuclear Armageddon.
While Badham is a fairly nuts and bolts director, his efficiency is put to good use here. He’s particularly strong with scene in the expensive and impressive-looking control room (the set still looks great, and it seems those working in the real deal were jealous of the size). He also allows the odd quirk to break through. David’s parents are a couple of weirdos, the types who went through the ‘60s without any acknowledgement of counter culture.
There’s a wonderfully funny little scene in which dad (William Bogert) carefully rubs his corn on the cob with margarine only to bite into it and discover it hasn’t been cooked. Mum (Susan Davis) confirms the fact, commenting on how nice and crunchy it is.
Other touches include Juanin Clay, as McKittricks’ assistant, popping his gum in her mouth when he gives it to her to dispose of (ewww!) There’s also an appearance from Mr Strickland himself, James Tolkan, as one of the NORAD top brass.
The picture garnered three Oscar nominations; Lasker and Parkes for Best Original Screenplay (Tender Mercies took it), William A Fraker – who did sterling work on The President’s Analyst a decade and a half earlier – for Best Cinematography (Fanny and Alexander was rewarded) and Best Sound (The Right Stuff walked home with the award). It was only the only Top Ten picture of the year, aside from Best Picture winner Terms of Endearment, to make any kind of dent on the nominations front.
Badham was something of an unsung ‘80s hit factory. In ’83 alone he had both this and Blue Thunder. Short Circuit and Stakeout followed a few years later. His cachet slowly dwindled, however, and he has been confined to television for the last decade. Which really rather suits him. Much as he can be relied upon to imbue a lightness of touch, or deliver first-rate tension in the opening scene, he isn’t a guy who stamps personality on his product. WarGames is his best picture (most would agree it’s this or his other zeitgeist movie, Saturday Night Fever), and one that can claim to be both a time capsule and still relevant.
It isn’t as if the nuclear threat has gone away*, or like cybercrime isn’t an issue. The stakes are very different now, but in many ways not so different at all. WarGames also succeeds so well because it is relevant science fiction. Most of offerings in that genre today are purely escapist, which is fine but they don’t provide food for thought. While remaking WarGames is probably a bad idea (it has been in development) striving for something that delivers the same kind of mass-audience resonance and provokes discussion and reflection would be a worthy goal.
*Addendum 06/07/22: This is, obviously, assuming the nuclear threat was real in the first place.
*Addendum 24/06/23: I’ve been chasing the wrong conspiracy with that one, it seems. It’s almost inevitable that, when you think you’ve grasped the nettle of some subjects, you instead get stung to blue blazes. There’s long-standing theorising concerning the legitimacy of the nuke threat, and of nuclear technology generally, it took me a while to warm to it (probably in the last three or four years). Warm to it I did, though, and it seemed Q & A answers were confirming the counterfeit nature of the subject (this, however, as tends to be the case, was based on misconception of the parameters of the response). The concomitant threat of mutually assured destruction is another matter, however, since one does not necessarily follow on from the other.