A couple of installments back I saw the movie Short Circuit, which was directed by a guy named John Badham. Badham is not a guy most people will know by name, and probably for good reason, but he has had an interesting career as a Hollywood journeyman and made a number of films that people remember pretty well. The son of a U.S. Army General from Alabama and a British actress that he met overseas, the Badham family got an odd entrance to the entertainment industry when his sister was cast as Scout in the 1962 film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. Much later Badham would work in television and make one small film before suddenly scoring a breakout hit film when he found himself making Saturday Night Fever and followed that up with the big budget Frank Langella starring adaptation of Dracula and the well-remembered thriller Blue Thunder. From there though he started to become more of a director of family films. Had I known ahead of time that the same guy who made Short Circuit also made WarGames I may have waited until I saw the latter before seeing the former, though that probably would have set me up for disappointment because Badham’s earlier film is plainly better than Short Circuit.
If there’s a common thread between WarGames and Short Circuit it’s that both films share a certain skepticism about shady military experiments. WarGames is meant to be something of a cautionary tale along the lines of The China Syndrome or Fail-Safe but made for a more family friendly post-E.T. Hollywood. But unlike Short Circuit, which was even more entrenched in a Spielbergian brand of cinema, there’s still a bit of that gritty brand of 70s paranoia to be found in WarGames. It’s telling that the movie doesn’t start with Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy but instead begins in NORAD with generals and scientists talking in geopolitical technobabble that probably isn’t entirely authentic but certainly doesn’t seem to have been dumbed down too much for kids. The mere fact that concepts like mutually assured destruction and early web hacking are being discussed here feels a lot more confident than what you’d usually get from PG rated fare today. Of course the more family oriented material with Broderick and Sheedy isn’t half bad either. Broderick’s character is interesting in that most movies of this era would make a computer geek like this into a total nerd with pocket protectors and shit but here this hacker is depicted as a slightly awkward but mostly normal teenager and Ally Sheedy’s character is fairly compelling if slightly lacking in things to do in the film. The film is probably at its weakest when it wants us to believe that this kid can escape from military custody like he was John McClane or something, but for the most part the characters work.
WarGames was more than likely inspired, at least in part, by a 1979 incident in which NORAD detected that a Soviet missile attack was inbound, leading to the president to be alerted and asked to make a decision to retaliate within 3 to 7 minutes. Fortunately for everyone it was determined within those 3 to 7 minutes that a training simulation had accidently been loaded into an active computer and that the whole thing was a false alarm and nuclear war was averted. Unbeknownst to audiences that saw the film a similar close call actually happened on the Soviet side in 1983 because their computers misread an unusual weather pattern and crisis was only averted that time because a Soviet Air Defense officer named Stanislav Petrov went against protocol and disregarded the computer detection of incoming missiles. No one in the west would learn about that near-apocalypse until the 90s but it still underscores that the kind of scenario found in the film was not entirely fantastical and helps explain why the film was actually taken pretty seriously despite its trappings back in 1983. Ronald Reagan is said to have seen a screening of the film and is said to have put forward a presidential directive on computer security because of it.
To the Scorecard
I was surprised to learn while researching the film that it was pretty well respected by critics at the time of its release. Roger Ebert gave it four stars and the film earned an Academy Award nomination for its screenplay. I’m not sure that’s I’d praise it that much, but it’s definitely a good movie and it’s certainly better than its reputation as a mere nostalgia piece.