This week’s pick is the 1983 Cold War classic War Games directed by John Badham and starring Matthew Broderick (David Lightman), Dabney Coleman (Dr. John McKittrick), John Wood (Dr. Stephen Falken), Ally Sheedy (Jennifer Mack), and Barry Corbin (General Beringer).
War Games is the ultimate Cold War thriller that questions whether or not there truly is a winner in a nuclear war. Matthew Broderick stars a David Ligthman, a highschooler with a fondness for computers and getting himself way in over his head. Lightman uses his computer hacking skills to mostly hack into his school’s computer in order to alter his grades, a dream every kid with a computer would hope to do.
At the same time, officials at the NORAD missile defense complex in Colorado, are wanting to remove the human element from America’s nuclear umbrella and devise a fully automated response system that will launch nuclear missiles once approval has been given by the president of the United States.
Dr. John McKittrick (Coleman), the head of the NORAD computer division at the Cheyenne Mountain complex, tries to convince several federal investigators that computers should be the ones to make the decisions that are hard for humans with brass keys to launch in the event of nuclear war, and that the officials at the NORAD facility will have the final say if a nuclear exchange is eminent.
McKittrick shows the federal investigators his grand piece of hardware, a super computer known as WOPR (War Operation Plan Response) which runs a series of war game scenarios based on current news in the world regarding the Soviet Union.
One day David invites his classmate Jennifer over to his home in order to help her with her failing grade in science. David comes across an unlisted phone number in Sunnyvale, California for a company called Protovision (a front for the U.S. military), which designs computer games. Lightman hacks into the system and discovers games like chess, checkers, bridge, Theater wide biotoxic/chemical warfare and global thermonuclear war.
Relying on a fellow hacker who teaches David about back doors in computer software, Lightman researches the man who was an early developer of the WOPR artificial intelligence technology, Dr. Stephen Falken (Wood) who designed the first game called Falken’s Maze.
After learning about Falken’s life and his withdrawal from military sciences after the death of his wife and young son Joshua, David discovers that Falken’s back door password is in fact his son’s name. David hacks into the system finally and believes he is playing a simple computer game, but what David doesn’t realize is that he has hacked into NORAD itself and WOPR believes that the scenarios David is playing are in response to an actual Soviet attack on the United States.
Once it becomes clear to David that the game scenario he and Jennifer were playing sparked an alert status to DEFCON 3 while watching a news broadcast, David tries to eliminate the evidence of hacking into WOPR. Even though David ended the game scenario by unplugging the system, Joshua is still continuing to play the game David started and a countdown has commenced in which Joshua plans on winning the game by starting World War III within a day and a half.
The rest of the film is a race against time where David tries to convince the military and the authorities that the super computer will trigger World War III. Along with his newfound girlfriend Jennifer, David tries to convince professor Falken to help them convince the military of Joshua’s intentions. Removed from society and given a new identity, Falken believes that mankind is spiraling towards Armageddon and believes that it’s futile to prevent man’s own extinction. Falken eventually comes around and the three race to NORAD to stop the military from carrying out a first strike in order to stop the massive Soviet threat that the computer is generating as a series of scenarios.
War Games is a well made, taut thriller that was made at the height of U.S./Soviet relations in the early pre-Gorbachev 1980s. Americans were so convinced that World War III would begin before the next commercial break and War Games is no exception to that paranoia. I in fact remember growing up in the early 80s and first saw this movie with my father and was scared that something like this could happen. It borrows a lot from Dr. Strangelove and the concept of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), which proves there are no winners in a nuclear war, everybody looses and nothing is gained. “Shall we play a game”?
War Games is available on DVD through MGM/UA Home Video and can be rented through Netflix.