I saw War Games years ago when I was about six or seven years old, and my perception the world pretty much extended to the end of the hallway at Pershing Elementary School. I knew about the Russians, but did not understand the Cold War. I knew about “duck and cover” drills, but we never had them at my school. I also knew about video games, but out little Mac 512K-E was mostly limited to snake and shufflepuck. So when, as a kid, I watched 16-year-old computer David Lightman (Matthew Broderick, in his pre-Ferris days) play a computer game of tic-tac-toe to save the world from nuclear annihilation…I was really confused.
I recently figured it was high time to give John Badham’s suspenseful cold war film another shot. And while the film doesn’t have the same social impact it once might have, it does remain an interesting look at a rather singular time in our history when the threat of nuclear war was not only real but, in the minds of many people, imminent. Lightman is a lovable slacker who smarts off to his teachers at school and spends his evenings and weekends at video arcades and hacking into computer systems with his monochromatic PC at home. And while this character could have been played by just about any teenage actor, it’s Matthew Broderick’s wide-eyed innocent charm that really sell the role. He’s on relatively good terms with his parents, he has an entirely innocent friendship with his classmate Jennifer (Ally Sheedy), and his hacking is mostly good-natured fun. He’s not out to ruin anyone’s day, it’s just that school bores him because he’s too smart for the system–and he knows it.
When Lightman sees an ad for a new computer game, he tries to hack in to the company’s systems so he can play their game before it’s released to the public. Soon enough he comes across a computer system with a list of games like “Chess,” “Tic Tac Toe,” and “Global Thermonuclear War.” Thinking he has found a repository of top-secret computer games, he and Jennifer decide to try out the last game, pretend they are the Russians, and launch a volley of missiles at the United Stated. All good fun, right? Well, it would be except for one little detail: Lightman didn’t know it, but he had really found his way into a top-secret NORAD computer mainframe and had just flipped the switch on World War III.
Pretty soon all heck breaks loose. Baby Matthew Broderick is busted by the government and taken to the NORAD underground Top Secret Lair where military dudes with Texas accents and cigars the size of drain pipes are blathering about doomsday, barking out DEFCON status updates, and glowering at Lightman very sternly while telling him in no uncertain terms to stay put. Sure enough he breaks the heck out of there, gets his friend-girl to buy him a plane ticket home, and the two of them track down Dr. Stephen Falken, the creator of the WOPR military computer that is about to blow up the world, because he is the only one who can stop the madness. In the end, the fate of all civilization comes down to a gigantic game of Tic-Tac-Toe and the hope that if a machine can learn how futile nuclear war is, maybe we humans can too. Aww.
Things are perhaps more than a tad predictable in War Games, but it’s a suspenseful movie with just enough coming-of-age moments for Lightman to keep us cheering for him. It’s a classic geek story with a likable, nerdy hero who gets the girl in the end, and despite some over-the-top performances here and there (not to mention the very idea of putting nuclear launch capabilities solely in the hands of a computer…*ahem* I’m looking at you, James Cameron), War Games is an enjoyable film whose message still holds up today, even if our cultural zeitgeist is more focused on terrorism than nuclear war. And it might not be long until the two become one and the same, so perhaps the message is in fact just as relevant now as it ever was…
Last 5 posts by Simon R.
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