No. 5: WarGames

Note: Back to the Movies is a special feature on the FilmNerds blog in which Matt Scalici will be watching the Top 50 highest-grossing movies of 1983 in order from 50 to 1.

As an American born in 1983, I’ve been fortunate enough to live the vast majority of my life without the shadows of the Soviet Union hanging over my head. For Americans who were born before that year, even as late as the late 1970s, the Cold War was a very real force in their lives for a very long time. It’s something that someone my age takes for granted, the idea that for nearly half a century part of being American meant living in fear every day that the second-most powerful nation in the world might get an itchy trigger finger and blow every living thing from New York to California right off the map. One imagines that there’s only one way to live under such conditions and that’s simply go about your life trying not to worry about it, which is exactly what most people did. In the meantime, however, the constant threat of such overwhelming violence can’t help but color the way people of that time think about everything, from global geopolitics and war to personal relationships.

We’ve encountered a handful of films already that address the Cold War directly at least briefly (Gorky Park, The Dead Zone, The Right Stuff, Uncommon Valor and Octopussy) but no other film from 1983 addresses Cold War angst as directly as WarGames does. But what makes John Badham’s thoughtful and, at times, emotionally wrought Cold War thriller a timeless classic is that unlike some of the aforementioned films, WarGames brings those often buried emotions about the Cold War and brings them to the forefront, exposing what must have been some fairly raw nerves and dealing with them in a direct (though some might say on-the-nose) manner.

The film has a long and convoluted history, beginning its life as a screenplay by Walter F. Parkes and Lawrence Lasker, two Yale-educated screenwriters who were fascinated by the fast-growing world of computers and the people who lived in that world. Parkes and Lasker started out writing a story about a Stephen Hawking-like scientist trying to pass on his knowledge to a young punk genius. As the years went by, the script was slowly updated to incorporate the concepts of computers and hacking, which also brought in ideas like computer simulations and game theory.

The film essentially tells two intertwining stories. One involves computer scientist Professor Falken (John Wood), a brilliant mind who became disillusioned about the world after the death of his wife and son and eventually convinced the military to fake his death so he could live out his remaining days in isolation on a wooded island. The second story, which takes place years later, centers on a young computer hacker named David (Matthew Broderick) who uses his then-rare skills to make mischief and impress girls. In an attempt to get early access to a new computer game, David accidentally finds his way into a military computer system that goes by the name Joshua and unknowingly activates a war simulation that could accidentally lead to a real nuclear war.

As the film balances between these two storylines, it also balances between two distinct tones: a light-hearted and somewhat mischievous tone that dominates the story of David and his girlfriend Jennifer (played by a young and wonderfully charming Ally Sheedy) while the other is a gravely serious and often dark tone dealing with NORAD and the imminent threat of a nuclear holocaust. This tonal shift is in part accidental due to director Martin Brest being fired just a few weeks into production and being replaced by Badham, who had a much lighter vision for the film. Take a look at these two scenes, one that seems to belong in a fast-paced action drama and another that clearly seems to belong in a straight comedy.

While sometimes these two tones seem to conflict with one another, that conflict is part of this movie’s brilliance and poignance. On the one hand, it shows us that nuclear peace in the world of 1983 hangs by such a thin thread that even a trouble-making computer hacker could potentially set off the chain of events leading to Mutually Assured Destruction. On the other hand, David and Jennifer’s emotional breakdowns after learning what’s going on show us one of the great tragedies of the Cold War, the havoc that the constant threat of violence can play on the minds of young people old enough to understand what’s happening in the world. 16-year-olds should be worried about making good grades and who they are going to ask out this weekend, not whether or not they’ll ever live to be 17.

We’ve dealt with teen angst in our countdown thus far on a number of occasions (All the Right Moves, Valley Girl, The Outsiders, Risky Business), enough to know that it was clearly a theme that resonated with 1983 audiences. It’s a theme that remains popular today, though it takes a different form, but I wonder if that angst wasn’t perhaps at least exaggerated by the fact that teenagers in 1983 had something deadly serious to be anxious about as a part of their day-to-day lives.

If nuclear angst is a part of the equation here, another major part is angst over the rapid development of technology and the fear that it could perhaps “outrun” humanity. The idea that Joshua the computer is actually learning, and not just learning data but learning complicated concepts that involve the value of human life, seems ridiculous to us today but it plays on the fear that computers might become so advanced that they’ll begin to make decisions without us. It’s the same idea that drove the still popular Terminator franchise and WarGames simply deals with it on real-world terms rather than science fiction terms.

On top of asking all these complex philosophical questions, which puts it light years ahead of the game when it comes to most blockbuster hits, WarGames also happens to be a terrifically well-made film. Badham’s direction of the handful of action sequences in the film are crucial to keeping the tension high during this very talky film and the performances by the entire cast, in particular Dabney Coleman as the sleazy-yet-sympathetic McKittrick and Barry Corbin as the cartoonish General Beringer, are strong.

The movie is also peppered with some nice smaller performances, including a somewhat ridiculous comedic performance from character actor Irving Metzman (a Woody Allen stock player in the ’80s) as a nebbishy computer scientist responsible for updating NORAD (and the audience) about what’s going on with Joshua. There’s also the memorable opening sequence featuring younger versions of two actors who would become quite well known in the ’90s as flawed members of a nuclear missile launch crew: Michael Madsen (Reservoir Dogs) and John Spencer (The West Wing).

It’s not a surprise that audiences responded so well to WarGames but perhaps what is surprising to me is that a movie that seems to have been so timely in 1983 still feels so effective today, despite the fact that it features outdated technology and speaks to international relations issues that haven’t existed for nearly 20 years. Perhaps growing up in the era of September 11th has given me a parallel to draw on (I was nearly the same age as David when the attacks occurred). Perhaps it’s simply a movie that draws on human emotions that every generation feels: the idea that technology is moving too fast for us, no matter how much we think we know about it; the idea that war or nature or viruses or any number of things out of our control could wipe us off the earth at any moment; and the more optimistic idea that a group of smart people in a room can solve even the most urgent and dire of problems. These are all things we still feel today and even though the Cold War dynamic is long gone from the world, it’s possible that the emotions tapped into in WarGames still exist in the American audiences of 2011.

DOWNLOAD: Back to the Movies Podcast – WarGames (with guest Sam McDavid)


Next Up: Eddie Murphy and Dan Akroyd star in the most successful comedy of 1983, Trading Places.