One of the abiding characteristics of the Cold War era was a general fear that it would eventually trigger World War III. A nuclear confrontation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, which might potentially kill millions of civilians with little or no advance warning, seemed all too plausible, especially in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis; kids were routinely shown educational films instructing them on the proper steps to take (1. duck; 2. cover) should the bomb go off in their vicinity. By the early ’80s, however, the nature of the paranoia had shifted. Decades had passed without incident, and it was fairly clear that cooler heads had prevailed, on both sides—nobody was likely to intentionally launch a pre-emptive first strike. Home computers were just starting to become popular, though, which raised another frightening possibility: What if someone were to remotely access the country’s missile defense system? The word “hacker” wasn’t yet widely known back then, but the concept itself didn’t require much knowledge or imagination. Maybe it wouldn’t even be a malicious enemy agent who pushed the button via modem. Maybe it would just be a couple of bored teenagers with an expensive toy and a deficit of common sense.
Such was the premise of 1983’s WarGames, in which David (Matthew Broderick) and Jennifer (Ally Sheedy) very nearly set off WWIII from David’s bedroom, using an IMSAI 8080 (which was actually a fairly old hobbyist computer, having been discontinued in 1978). Unlike previous films about accidental nuclear catastrophes, like 1964’s dueling Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove, this one doesn’t take place entirely in the corridors of power, among the executive branch and the military. My favorite sequence is the one in which David first gains access to NORAD’s supercomputer, known as WOPR (for War Operation Plan Response), thinking that he’s hacked the server of a computer-game company called Protovision. Having previously seen “global thermonuclear war” listed in a directory—immediately beneath such innocuous pastimes as chess, checkers, hearts, and poker—David asks to play, blissfully unaware of the havoc he’s creating on some rather important screens in another state. Take a look at this clip, bearing in mind that most of the audiences who saw WarGames at the time didn’t even have a computer in their home, much less years of experience surfing the internet (which existed, but wouldn’t really go public for another decade).
The first thing that struck me, watching this again, is that the primitive display of David’s computer provides director John Badham with visual opportunities that don’t really exist anymore. The scene takes place in broad daylight, but because the screen is just white letters in a sea of blackness, Badham gets a terrific deep reflection of Broderick’s face throughout, allowing us to enjoy his expressions at the same time that we read what’s being typed (though Badham plays it safe by having David both use a voice synthesizer for the computer and speak everything he types aloud, ostensibly for Jennifer’s benefit). The iMac on which I’m typing these words right now is so damn bright and busy that it’d be completely useless for that purpose, even in the dark. Close-ups of computer screens in movies today are invariably shot straight on, maybe from over the user’s shoulder if the director wants to vary things a bit. You’ll never see the off-center angle that Badham favors here, because its function—balancing text in one half of the frame with the actor’s face in the other half—wouldn’t even occur to a contemporary filmmaker. (Plus, when they want that effect they just have the character Skype with someone and use that actor’s face.)
Keeping the actors in view is crucial to establishing the sequence’s tone, which falls somewhere between the sober reality of Fail-Safe (reflected in the NORAD activity) and Dr. Strangelove’s absurdist black comedy. WarGames is fundamentally a serious film, but it’s the disjunction between how much fun the kids are having and how much real-world panic they’re inspiring that proves so unnerving here. “I’ll be the Russians!” David immediately says when presented with his player options, and that choice resonated with kids at the time. (I speak from personal knowledge, having been 15 at the time of the film’s release.) Gorbachev’s glasnost was still several years away, and the Soviets were largely perceived by everyday Americans as a faceless, implacable foe—exactly the kind of badass (think Drago in Rocky IV, though that was also in the future at this point) that you’d want to be if you were playing a combat-based game. Add to that the giddy zeal with which David and Jennifer choose U.S. cities they want to annihilate (including Seattle, where they live), and the scene works disturbingly well as an exaggeration of the callous expendability of human life that underlies the Cold War-inspired doctrine of mutual assured destruction.
Actually, though, I need to revise what I said a few sentences back about the panic “global thermonuclear war” inspires over at NORAD. “Panic” is the wrong word, now that I look again. There’s plenty of frantic activity, to be sure, as well as a loud ah-OOOH-guh alarm signifying an emergency, but the personnel, including the general played by Barry Corbin, are all remarkably calm, given that they believe eight nuclear warheads will level the entire western United States in 11 minutes’ time. In fact, Corbin’s general merely orders that the U.S. go to DEFCON 3 (while stuffing his face with Red Man chewing tobacco, no less), which is one level more relaxed than the U.S. military stood as Operation Desert Storm began. As it turns out, of course, the attack is just a simulation, which NORAD realizes about five seconds after this clip ends. (The real threat emerges later in the movie, when “Joshua,” the computer program, continues trying to achieve its objective even when ordered to stop.) At the time, however, everyone appears to be convinced that it’s real, and there’s something both reassuring and disconcerting about watching them do their jobs without collectively turning into Hudson from Aliens: “Game over, man, game over!” It looks more true to life than one would expect from a Hollywood movie.
Audiences bought it, in any case. WarGames was a sizable hit, grossing $80 million domestic (roughly $190 million in today’s money, which is more than Ant-Man pulled in last year) on a budget of just $12 million. Charming though Broderick and Sheedy both were, it’s likely that people were responding primarily to the scenario’s alarming plausibility. Curiously, it’s hard to imagine this idea having the same impact today, even though (a) ISIL and other extremists are probably a greater threat to the U.S. than the Soviet Union was in 1983, and (b) said extremists are known to be actively pursuing cyberattack strategies. There are plenty of reasons to be fearful, especially if you live in a large metropolitan area, but the fears are more localized—that people with automatic weapons will just show up and start firing, or that a dirty bomb will go off. Nuclear-armed ICBMs don’t make people sweat anymore, even though they’re still in their silos, waiting… and even though the whole inspiration for WarGames, according to the screenwriters, was NSA advisor Willis Ware’s statement that “the only computer that’s completely secure is a computer that no one can use.” The world has changed enormously since Ware said that, but the existential danger has not.