WarGames – Weapons of Mass Destruction week

This is Weapons of Mass Destruction week. WarGames is currently available on instant Netflix.


PASS: WarGames (1983) – Rated PG.

“After cracking the security of an Air Force supercomputer, young hacker David Lightman (Matthew Broderick) moves his piece in a seemingly innocent video game and accidentally tells the computer to start preparing a preemptive nuclear strike. Driven by Cold War paranoia, director John Badhams techno-thriller follows Lightman and his girlfriend (Ally Sheedy) as they travel across the country to try and warn the military of the impending launch.”

“Is this a game or is it real?” – “Whats the difference?”

“He does fit the profile perfectly. He is intelligent but an underachiever; alienated from his parents; has few friends. Classic case for recruitment by the Soviets.”

Ah the film that began the multi-decade love affair between Hollywood and the hacker. This is the first movie to mention a firewall. As with almost all movies involving hackers or computers, the number of factual errors is enormous.

The acoustic coupler is completely unnecessary to the setup in Davids room (he has a normal modem). The autodialer cycles through phone numbers at a rate that no computer/modem of the time could possibly manage. Ditto that with the computer cycling through a brute force password hack.

Apparently David and NORAD both use the same voice synthesizer. As usual every word typed or shown on screen must be read aloud. It always makes me feel like I am wasting my time reading anything as it will be repeated soon enough. Well the important bits anyway – the voice synthesizer apparently picks and chooses what it repeats.

While there are a number of egregious computer errors, the script has a good grasp on hacker lifestyle at the time, both on the main character and on a few secondary hackers. At one point, David is shown coming out of the 7-11 with a Big Gulp – a pretty standard scene from my teen years though his goes a bit differently. The two secondary hackers are clearly social misfits as is David to a certain extent.

Badham does give us the requisite classic 80s montage. In this case it is a research montage instead of a workout one. We also get the requisite teenager who is smarter than everyone around him – ah if only the old folks would listen to him.

Much of the military is played as complete dunderheads. For example, immediately after the General is assured that the launch codes could only be used if we were at Defcon 1, he raises the Defcon level to 3 from 4. It does not appear to have been said ironically either.

Strangely this film was nominated for three Academy Awards. It was nominated for Best Cinematography, Sound, and Best Writing – Original Screenplay. It lost to Fanny and Alexander, The Right Stuff, and Tender Mercies respectively. The sound I understand but I did not find the cinematography impressive and the writing is riddled with plotholes.

I have to ask a lot of questions though.

Does NORAD really allow tour groups? Of the command center? With cameras? And where they do not know the head count?

Is it SOP for the FBI to arrest high school students in Seattle and then take them to NORAD?

Does NORAD really use Galaga sound effects? Does NORAD really use Beethovens Fifth to contact the President?

Certainly Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy are young and engaging here. John Wood is nice and quirky here and Dabney Coleman essentially plays the same character he always plays.

While this film is fun to watch, it is riddled with plotholes and errors and is very dated. I remembered really enjoying this film when it came out but I am afraid that I cannot bring myself to recommend it now. I do have to give it points for featuring Galaga so prominently though.

People Watch: Look for a very young Michael Madsen in the opening scene. Try not to picture him saying “Are you going to bark little doggie or are you going to bite?” Director John Badham is the voice on the tape recorder.