Fast Track Synopsis:
After a disaster of a missile launch drill where nearly a third of the silos failed to launch their nuclear arsenal, civilian contractors make a proposal to turn over the actual launch procedures to the computer known as WOPR (War Operation Planned Response). Although the Commander of NORAD, General Berringer, vehemently opposes the idea, the NSA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommend the idea to the President, who approves it quickly.
In the Northwestern US, a young man named David enjoys a typical teenage suburban existence. At school, he is a troublemaker and a rebel, but he is also a computer hacker. This gets the attention of Jennifer, a classmate. Their adventures in computer hacking start with the mundane, with things like changing grades to keep from failing. But the danger begins when David finds an ad for a new set of computer games and he finds that he wants to play those games before anyone else. When he is initially rebuffed in his attempts to find the games, he begins researching on the company’s lead programmer, Dr. Stephen Faulken. Eventually, Jennifer provides the key for accessing the computer. David uses the password and they gain access to the computers.
Unfortunately, the computer he gains access to is WOPR. And David decides that he wants to play “Global Thermonuclear War.” While David’s screen looks like an advanced game, WOPR runs its game on NORAD’s boards. This leads to NORAD scrambling to get their nuclear arsenal off the ground until David shuts off his computer, effectively ending the simulation.
Unfortunately for all parties involved, it does not end here. The FBI apprehends David and fly him to NORAD. Mr. McKittrick, the lead computer operator at NORAD, believes David to be a spy for the Russians. In a moment of diversion, David talks to WOPR, and finds that it is still running its simulation and plans on launching its missiles. David attempts to warn NORAD, but they refuse to believe him. David breaks out of solitary confinement and blends in with a local tour group inside NORAD. Having escaped captivity, he gets Jennifer to send him a plane ticket to go to Oregon. She meets up with David and they head to Dr. Falken’s home. David explains the situation, but Dr. Falken, still grieving over the loss of his son many years ago, refuses to help.
David and Jennifer leave the house, but are stuck on the island as the last ferry has left. David succumbs to the hopelessness that WOPR will make NORAD execute a missile launch, and Jennifer shares a kiss with him. Suddenly, an Air Force helicopter shows up – and Dr. Falken persuades David and Jennifer to climb on board.
Back in NORAD, WOPR’s simulation has made NORAD continue to escalate itself into higher states of nuclear launch readiness until today, when it begins a Soviet nuclear missile attack. General Berringer orders all nuclear weapons ready for launch and has NORAD placed in launch mode. Dr. Falken, David, and Jennifer show up just in time. Dr. Falken convinces Berringer to ride out the attack, and he contacts what would be the first 3 targets that would be hit by the Russian strike. As the computer board shows the US being obliterated by nuclear weapons, the stations report no actual weapon strikes. Everyone celebrates, but WOPR locks everyone out of the computers and begins searching for the launch codes to fire the missiles itself.
All efforts to breach WOPR fail until David and Dr. Falken discover that “Tic-Tac-Toe” is not on WOPR’s list of games. Using this game as a backdoor password, they have WOPR play this game itself. It continued to draw more power from the grid until it overloaded and shut completely down. WOPR then plays out every nuclear scenario it could conceive, until it came to the conclusion that there is no winning scenario. Power is restored, and General Berringer returns NORAD to peacetime status (DEFCON 5).
Review and Analysis:
The Problem with War in the Nuclear Age:
This scene, which was the “Final Battle” for this movie, illustrates the entire problem with waging an ever escalating war with a nuclear arsenal at the disposal of two countries whose militaries act as robots would when given the order to fire: There is no winner.
Every scenario played by WOPR, which included First Strikes, Regional Conflicts, Conventional War Escalations, and so on, ended with both the US and the Soviet Union launching their nuclear arsenals, which would destroy the entire world, regardless of who shot first.
As it was John Badham spends most of the time beating the audience over their heads regarding the absolute wrongness of Nuclear War and the idea of War in General.
Tony Scott makes a similar point in a different way about 12 years later, with the movie Crimson Tide.
Birth of the Whining Man-Child:
It begins here…with this movie. Matthew’s acting was supposed to convey that he was curious about something “rather innocent”; in this case, it was him wanting to play some harmless games, only to find himself overwhelmed by military intrigue with global disaster at stake. And as his options continued to dwindle and quickly, he would lash out at everyone for not taking his warnings seriously. And, for most of the movie, no one does.
But, like everything else copied in Hollywood, Matthew’s attempt at giving the David Lightman character a bit of nuance is ignored. Instead, writers and directors focus on David’s behavior and Jennifer’s nearly unwavering support – which is mistaken for the concept of “propping up” the Hero/Main Character when he falls down and cries. The fact that David caused his own misery and stumbles his way through is missed. See also: The Matrix series (Neo and Trinity) and the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy (Anakin and Padme).
A “Star Wars” Boondoggle:
Not “Star Wars” the movie series, but rather a fictional take on the very real “Strategic Defense Initiative” created by the Reagan Administration in the early 1980s. The idea of using a broad-based weapons platform to defend the American mainland from a ballistic missile attack is not new, as ideas such as ground-based anti-ballistic interceptors and space-based laser cannons were researched. SDI was to embark on a program that would further militarize outer space, in which satellites would be equipped with weapons that could destroy incoming ballistic missiles, theoretically protecting the nation from a nuclear attack.
But all of this was based on a premise that a war involving high-radiation thermonuclear weapons can be won. Part of the reason for the kind of direct-impact scaring that Wargames attempts stems from the research done on the after-effects of nuclear war – and they are not pretty.
This is what Professor Falken refers to when he speaks on the “Horror of Survival.”
Birth of Skynet:
WOPR is a computer that is programmed to find a scenario to win a Nuclear War. Stephen Falken designed it as a computer that learns from its defeats so that it can make better strategies. In some ways, WOPR is nothing more than a 6 year old child that is curious about things. However, WOPR displayed a naivete that was supposed to be both endearing and scary at the same time; it made no distinction between playing the simulation and making realistic preparations for launch.
Hollywood has often cautioned against the autonomy of machines, even for daily tasks. What WOPR illustrates is the need for seeing things with ones own eyes before making a decision. The escalations that NORAD reported on should have been verified by HUMINT (Human Intelligence) through visual observations and reports by forward military units. As an example, the movement of 100,000 soldiers anywhere would not be easy to conceal, nor would 48 ballistic missile submarines be able to close in on the US mainland without running into an American Carrier Battle Group or US attack submarines at some point in either ocean. However, the belief that computers and machines are exact and infallible is betrayed by the fact that machines can be manipulated. Or that the machine can manipulate the human.
Four years after this movie, James Cameron released “The Terminator,” in which a killer cyborg from the future comes to 1980s America to kill the mother of the Human Resistance before she can give birth to the leader who will defeat the Machines. The underlying story is that US Government decided to create a WOPR-like computer in Skynet, in the hopes that the computer would be able to find a way to win an unwinnable Nuclear Holocaust. As expected, Skynet decided that Humanity itself was the problem, and launched the American’s nuclear arsenal at the Russians. The Soviets responded, and the world was plunged into an endless nuclear winter.
WOPR itself does not become more like Skynet until several years after that, with the release of the Sony Playstation game Wargames: DEFCON 1.
The Law of Unintended Consequences:
In movie parlance, writers get the audience to endear themselves to hero in one of two ways: First, by having the hero do something nice for a marginalized person or group; this is termed “Petting the dog.” Or, the hero/main character is harassed and put upon by the society in general to generate sympathy for the hero in question. Perhaps the latter is personified by the character of Peter Parker in “Spiderman,” where even the most mundane acts of living are characterized by his suffering some major consequence.
In Wargames, David Lightman’s character is put-upon by Mr. Ligget, a biology teacher at David’s school. He makes it a point to humiliate David about his poor grade (shown in the pic above). And to also show that Mr. Ligget is indeed a depraved character, he does the same thing to Jennifer Mack. Since she is the hero’s soon-to-be love interest, it is supposed to reinforce that Mr. Ligget is not likable, thus whatever retribution David and/or Jennifer visit upon him would be considered righteous. And, indeed there is, when David breaks into the school’s computer and changes their grades to show that they’re passing.
Unfortunately, what it also shows is that David, for all of his talents and raw intellect, is unwilling to apply those talents to actually learning; when he has the ability to go into the very system that allows him to cheat the Kobayashi Maru scenario, he (like Kirk before him) doesn’t face the very real consequences that come from ignoring schoolwork and flouting the limited influence and authority that school teachers have.
Yet, this was the scenario that played out all too many times in teenage films like this (Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Porky’s, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and others), where teachers would be portrayed as stiff authority figures that would not allow the boys and girls to have fun – which was usually limited to parties where alcohol would be consumed, pranking the more marginalized students at school (the nerds, the goths, the terminally lonely), and having sex. Finding more positive portrayals of teachers were far and few between, except when said teachers were tasked with helping poor Black and Latino students to learn in a rundown school. Most of the more positive images of schoolteachers, unfortunately, would only be found on public broadcasting, whose funding is dependent upon donations by private citizens, corporations, and limited support from federal, state, and local governments.
The end result? A vast amount of the American electorate who operate on the belief that Teachers are overpaid, lazy, and don’t care about the children they teach. But, of course, since they belong to some “union,” they are protected from being fired outright.
While David and Jennifer are supposed to be rebels against the authority, the local school system is the one that suffers their wrath…for their own laziness.
Bad Religion – The Band:
Bad Religion wrote a song called “21st Century Digital Boy,” which is the story of a typical (American) teenager who has lots of electronic devices and access to material comforts, but is so wrapped up in his own lifestyle that he can barely function in society without them. His parents are typical middle-class (White) Americans, his father is intelligent, but does nothing with his life but go to work to maintain their lifestyle; his mother simply relieves the stress of her life with drugs.
The lyrics could certainly pertain to the Lightmans:
Both are the unaware middle-class parents of David. They cheered his success, not really knowing what he is capable of. And, yes, like everyone else in the movie over the age of 25, they are clueless to the reality around them.
When WOPR fakes 2 Russian Backfire Bombers attacking Sarah Palin’s frontyard, General Berringer orders 2 F-16 interceptors to shoot them down. However, the stock footage was not of the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon, but of McDonnell Douglas’ F-15 Eagle.
Note that the F-16 makes an actual appearance in John Badham’s other film released the same year, Blue Thunder.
General Berringer was supposed to represent one side of the debate of Humans vs. Computers, where he wanted to keep control of the missiles de-centralized, mostly because he believed that his men were better at missile launching than any computer would ever be.
Mr. McKittrick, however, believed that it would be more efficient if computer-controlled relays, if given a safeguard of keeping the computer from storing the launch code, would be better for National Defense. And, as such, represented what was supposed to be the “other side” of the debate that the movie wanted to focus on: That the humanity that prevents men from blowing up mankind also prevents men from striking against the enemy…to blow up mankind.
The movie makes the point that computers should not make decisions which affect billions of human beings on a wide scale without an override of some kind. But we keep coming back to the horror of Nuclear Winter – and attempting to win the unwinnable. This may not have been the point that the movie wanted us to settle on, which was why Dr. Falken’s points were dismissed as the rantings of a man still grieving with the loss of his wife and son. But it is the reality.
Additional McKittrick Sidenotes:
It is unclear whether McKittrick is a civilian contractor working for the Air Force or if he is actually tasked as an employee of the Federal Government as far as his actual duties in NORAD. Either way, his threatening David with indefinite detention without access to counsel may have turned out to be another of John Badham’s predictions that no one heeded. However, much like Blue Thunder’s commentary on “fear of the other” is rarely discussed, Wargames suffers the same fate here.
Where Matthew Broderick plays David Lightman, a hacker and delinquent, Ally Sheedy plays Jennifer Mack, a young girl who takes an interest in David. Believing in the adage of “Opposites Attract,” David’s nerdiness and abilities in computers are offset (and complimented) by Jennifer’s athleticism and general cluelessness concerning…just about everything. In one aspect, Jennifer’s character is a step up from the usual female bimbo that inhabits the genre. In the end, however, she still did most of the same things that most female characters do in these kinds of movies – including falling down when chased, in her case, by a helicopter.
John Badham and Ally Sheedy would team up once again for another “anti-War” picture 3 years later, “Short Circuit.”
The Privilege of Personal Computing:
One of the issues that movies in the 1980s had was an inability to show people of color beyond a background of poverty. Shows like “The Jeffersons” and “The Cosby Show” aside, Black people in particular were shown as being streetwise and worldly, and otherwise poor or working class. Other times, you would find a Black man who was good with machines.
But the image of the Computer Nerd was, for the most part, personified by this kind of face:
In the 1980s, computers were starting to become small enough to fit on desks at home and in school. Companies like Texas Instruments, Commodore, Coleco, IBM, and Tandy, had designed and built personal computers for the average family. The starting price, however, was a barrier to entry for most working class families, with cheaper units starting at $900. These did not include accessories like disk drives, dedicated monitors (you use a converter to display the computer screen on TV), printers, or modems. Those wealthy enough to afford those items would often get another bill for the telephone service when their kids would dial in to Bulletin Board Servers to download applications, games, or other computer files, as these were often long distance phone calls.
The result is that the majority of people who were allowed to develop and flourish on computers would be seen as White, and in particular, Male. Even when you had men of color and women in general shown to be good with computers, the hostile racial and gender barriers which seem visible (and breakable) today were rigidly enforced through many corners, even in popular culture.
This is where we as an audience are supposed to be appalled that the Federal Government would arrest a kid like David because other than the fact that he likes to hack into computers and prank around, he is a good kid at heart. The fact that he is unable to face the consequences of his actions and will flout the system to do is a side dish.
The larger problem, however, is that the fact that David is White, Middle-class, and Male, which in this case, gives a latitude that would not have been afforded anyone else, save for Female and White, in the same situation. But in either case, a person of color, regardless of gender, would not have been detained at NORAD, nor would they have been allowed unsupervised access to a computer, nor would they have been able to escape by blending in to the tour group which was at NORAD at the time.
This is the privilege that is most pervasive. And the one rarely noticed.
Senior Airman Fields is only allowed to do her job in Wargames, but at least she is allowed to do that job with competency. Only a scant 20 years later, showrunners and producers would have either erased her out of the picture or give us a scene or two to have us laugh or cringe at her incompetence.
Trivia – John Badham has featured more Black Women in the military in this film than the TV show “Stargate SG-1” did in 10 years, even though both centered around NORAD and the US Air Force.
And Then There Was the Box:
It seems that everyone had the same voice box to voice WOPR. David, Mr. McKittrick, and even NORAD had that voice box on a loudspeaker. While the obvious reason is that the production team wanted to keep a consistent voice regarding WOPR, technologically it makes little sense, even in 1982.
And Damage Control P.R. Works Overtime:
Despite the fact that WOPR did not launch the US nuclear arsenal, all parties involved would have to work 25/8/367 to undo the damage David Lightman’s “harmless curiosity” has wrought:
- On several occasions during the 3-day simulation, the US accused the Soviets of troop movements, escalation maneuvers, airspace incursions, and even a full-scale nuclear attack. I can imagine the State Department wanting to hang David’s head on a pike for setting back (or potentially scrapping) negotiations of treaties like START for that.
- Berringer would need to explain to President “Reagan” and his staff why he was being thrown into his limosine for a nuclear attack that never occurred. Twice.
- The civilian company which was being used a Front Company for the WOPR project would need to explain what the role of the ad campaign was supposed to provide. There is a problem when your list of games looks like this:
- Mr. McKittrick will also have to explain how he and his staff did not know that the WOPR was able to call back the number to David Lightman’s house after David terminated the simulation. It’s interesting that he knew that David had made reservations to Paris when it was Jennifer’s name on the ticket reservations. If he did a phone record search, it is odd that McKittrick missed this detail in his investigation.
Wargames is one of those movies that had a strong message one direction, but loses that message in favor of a greater one whether it wanted to or not. It paints the US Military as a bad actor, but in good faith. The military and the corporation merge in many ways here, and all is nearly undone because of a prankster looking to establish hacker cred. The image of the computer nerd is narrowly enforced and reinforced, and teachers are maligned to reinforce the goodness of the hero. Parents are clueless background fodder. And the real consequences of WOPR and the hacking by David are not even touched upon.
Wargames is a spinning coin. Whether you like this movie or not will depend on which end the coin finally rests on. And on any given day, at that.