WarGames is a 1983 thriller starring Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy, and the recipient of three Academy Award nominations: Best Original Screenplay (back when science-fiction films had a better chance in this category), Best Sound, and Best Cinematography. Broderick plays David, a smart but underachieving high school student. Where most teenage boys in the 80’s would most likely spend their down-time watching television or going outside to hang out with friends, David chooses to engage in the art of computer hacking. His room is a suffocating shrine to this activity: papers scattered everywhere, programing books stacked on shelves, and a computer system that could have made NASA red in the cheeks.
One day David is using his skill to acquire games when he accidentally hacks into the mainframe of the computer controlling the U.S. nuclear missile system. Completely oblivious to this, David agrees to play what he thinks is a game with the system. As a result, he accidentally causes a chain of events that sends the United States hurdling towards World War III. He is later arrested and taken into a mountain base in Colorado to be interrogated – some speculating that he is a spy working with the Soviet Union. After using his considerable skills to break free he flies off to meet with his friend, Jennifer (Ally Sheedy), to work on not only proving his innocence, but also saving the world from nuclear annihilation.
Having just finished watching this film I’m left with a single feeling: surprise. How could this film fall so far under the radar of public knowledge today. Despite not being a ground-breaking film, I found it to be a very enjoyable one. WarGames succeeds at being engaging while also presenting some important questions. Perhaps the end of the Cold War has dated this film, but its focus on the issues surrounding dependence on machines to compensate for human weaknesses (i.e. emotions/hesitation) remains as relevant today as it was back in 1983 – perhaps even more so.
Director John Badham and editor Tom Rolf manage to inject enough tension into the film to keep viewers on the edge of their seat. Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy give strong performances as two teenagers in over their heads. This is especially true for Broderick. His David is a rebellious and cocky teenager who applies his God-given intelligence to computer hacking rather than academics. His growth as a character occurs only after he is humbled before those with true power, which gives us a glimpse into his own vulnerability.
The supporting cast all does fine as well, though it is John Wood’s portrayal of Dr. Falken that stands out. Falken’s very grief at losing his son’s has resulted in his adoption of a cold logic that demonstrates apathy towards the human race, which he must overcome before helping David and Jennifer save the world. “General you are listening to a machine. Do the world a favor and don’t act like one,” Falkan tells the General after changing his attitude. He acted like a machine himself, and is trying to convince the General not to follow in his footsteps.
WarGames, therefore, not only addresses the issue of a computer’s cold logic, but that same brand of logic which can exist in humanity. The film also highlights a kind of irony where coldness is initiated by very human emotions. For Falkan, his attitude was morphed by the loss of his wife and son. For the United States government, who decided to remove much of the human element in the nuclear security system in favor of a purely obedient machine, it is the Cold War fear.
The only possible issue is that the concluding message of “there are no winners in the Cold War” (“It’s learning,” David says regarding the computer’s realization that there can be no winners in this real-life game of Tic-Tac-Toe) is a bit heavy-handed. Even that is grasping at straws, and Badham’s decision to use the game of tic-tac-toe as a metaphor does add to the subtlety. Overall it did not detract from the overall fantastic experience that I had viewing the film, and for that reason WarGames earns a very strong 4.75/5.