CCNMA: No-win scenario — WarGames

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Are your weekend entertainment plans certified? CCNMA is a weekly feature that explores the movie industry’s love-hate relationship with computing technology. This week’s movie is  ONE FROM THE VAULT .

For years after first seeing WarGames in childhood, my most enduring memory of the film was the image of the late Maury Chakin, red-faced and stringy-haired, bellowing at Eddie Deezen, “Mr. Potato Head! Mr. Potato Head! Backdoors are not secrets!” Nor were they, nor are they, 30 years after the WOPR first issued its definitive assessment of Global Thermonuclear War: “A strange game. The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess?”

One of the earliest, and certainly one of the most memorable depictions of hacking to filter through the lens of pop culture, WarGames helped an entire generation of IT bystanders process the idea that computers are connected to other computers, and that a sinister mastermind, or even a punk kid with a phone in his bedroom, can reach out and touch someone else’s data.

Whether it’s Chaykin’s Jim explaining to brainy teen David Lightman (a pre-Ferris Bueller Matthew Broderick) about backdoors — “Whenever I design a system I always put in a simple password that only I know about” — or David himself robodialing phone numbers in Sunnyvale, Calif., to seek out a video game company, WarGames puts the rudiments of hacking in terms that almost anyone can make sense of.

There’s even a nod to stuff that goes beyond sitting at a computer: David sifts enough publicly available information about revolutionary (and fictitious) programmer Stephen Falken that he’s eventually able to guess Falken’s hidden password and access the inner workings of a certain high-level military defense system. Not that David entirely realizes — as the film makes clear — he’s tugging on the loose board in the back wall of Uncle Sam’s barn.

Rather like a film that it beat to the box office by a single year, James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984), WarGames has a plot that springs out of the idea of using computers to coordinate and control national defense forces. The movie begins on a dark and stormy night with a fantastic scene-setting sequence — featuring then-unknown West Wing star John Spencer and a very young Michael Madsen — that suggests some of the reasons why mere humans might be deemed less reliable than machines at executing certain defense functions.

In fairly short order, we’re introduced to WOPR (War Operation Plan Response), a giant computerized brain that “spends all of its time thinking about World War III.” The main advocate for WOPR is programmer John McKittrick (Dabney Coleman), who argues that human fallibility is compromising defense readiness, while the indispensable Barry Corbin as plainspoken four-star Army commander Barringer favors the flesh-and-blood-centered status quo. “I wouldn’t trust this overgrown pile of microchips any further than I could throw it,” Barringer grumbles.

The shared danger on everyone’s mind is the military might of the U.S.S.R., long-vanished in 2013, but very much at the center of public consciousness in 1983. The movie’s real villain, however, is the marketing department of Protovision, the computer game company that unwittingly captures the imagination of young David Lightman (remember him?) with its glossy, secretive magazine ad for an upcoming product launch.

David decides there’s no reason to wait until “next Christmas” to sample “the best kept secret in the world of computer games” when his own computing skills can get him inside the Protovision company network right now. When he finds a secure system that coughs up a mysterious list of “games” with such ominous-sounding titles as Guerrilla Engagement, or Theaterwide Biotoxic and Chemical Warfare — along with the big brass ring, Global Thermonuclear War — David figures he’s knock, knock, knockin’ on Protovision’s door. Only that’s not who eventually answers. And David’s curiosity soon balloons into a threat to the highest levels of national security.

This is as good a role as Broderick’s ever had, and he’s nicely paired up with Ally Sheedy (later of John Hughes’ seminal The Breakfast Club). Both were 21 at the time of the movie’s release, though they more than convincingly look and sound like credulous 16- or 17-year-olds. Everyone in the movie has great material, including British actor John Wood as the elusive Falken, who doesn’t even step in front of the camera until the film has barely 30 minutes to go, and still walks off with some of its most memorable monologues.

Falken’s comparison of modern warfare to Tic Tac Toe is still chilling: “There’s no way to win. The game itself is pointless. But back at the war room, they believe you can win a nuclear war. That there can be acceptable losses.” And the scene where Falken talks down a nervous Barringer is as tense as they come. (Speaking of Tic Tac Toe: Keep your ears peeled for the amusing and tension-breaking throwaway line, “Put X in the center square.”)

Computers have been a reliable bogeyman in movies for nearly as long as movies have been around, and WarGames plays that card about as well as it’s ever been played. Yet this is also a movie that views the ever-evolving partnership between man and his machines with hope, and a certain amount of esteem for technology and tech geeks that movies rarely provide. And also it’s awesome — written, directed and acted with wit, warmth and wisdom. If WOPR calls your home phone and asks to play a game, don’t hang up.

PROGRAMMING NOTES

SO THAT HAPPENED: Soulless, cash-starved opportunists made a sequel that tangentially features Falken and WOPR in 2008. It’s called WarGames: The Dead Code. Let us not speak of it further.

MY HEAD EXPLODED: At the end of the film, WOPR “thinks” itself to an epiphany by literally playing out simulations of so many World War III scenarios that it blows a logic circuit — er, or something like that. What we see is several flashes of light, a shower of sparks or two, a computer belching a gout of flame. Um, okaaay. At any rate, just remember that the next time it feels like YOU are thinking too hard about something. Also, there are literally dozens of variations of the Global Thermonuclear War simulation that flash past in this scene, including at least two — Gabon Surprise and Gabon Rebellion — that envision World War III being sparked by events in the tiny west African coastal nation of Gabon (pop. 1.5 million). Other notable options: Greenland Maximum, Jamaica Decoy, Turkish Heavy, England Escalation, Iceland Incident, Malaysian Maneuver, Chile Confrontation, Uganda Offensive and my personal favorite, SEATO (South East Asia Treaty Organization) Decapitation.

OBITER DICTUM: There’s a fun scene in the movie where David uses a medical recording device to fool a keypad lock. When he finds the device and briefly tests its playback function, we hear a few seconds of the last prior recording: “Pupils are dilated consistent with use of marijuana and possibly PCP.” There’s another amusing snippet of cinematic white noise earlier in the film as David walks into the house while his dad is watching the news: “The flames began in a prophylactic recycling center.” (Yup. Those hippies in Seattle will literally recycle anything.) At another moment, David’s dad is doing a crossword puzzle and asks about the meaning of the word “tumulus.” (Looked it up for you. A tumulus is “an artificial mound, especially over a grave; barrow.”) And finally, should you ever need to launch America’s nuclear missiles, the 10-digit alpha-numeric launch code that WOPR reveals at the end of the movie is: CPE1704TKS. Now you know.

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Chip Hartweir

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

CHIP HARTWEIR is a Certified Cinemaniac who likes movies, computers and especially movies about computers. He has won numerous awards for writing about film and has a keyboard with arm's reach most hours of the day. E-mail him at chiphartweir (at) gmail (dot) com.

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