In 1983, tensions between the US and The Soviet Union were high, and fear of nuclear war was in the air. Meanwhile, American life was being changed by the rise of the personal computer, with nerds of all ages in the vanguard. Director John Badham weaves these two strands together with excellent results in WarGames.
Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes’ clever script centers on teenager David Lightman (Matthew Broderick). David is an archetype: Someone who underachieves in all areas except that for which he has a genius, namely computers, video games, and electronics. Out of nerdly mischief and a desire to impress a girl from school (Ally Sheedy), David hacks into a computer system that he thinks is run by a software company, and starts playing a game called “Global Thermonuclear War”. But unbeknownst to David, he’s actually penetrated a computer system built by a different order of geek within the U.S. military (Dabney Coleman and John Wood) which has the autonomy to launch nuclear weapons. Adventure, suspense, and a useful lesson in game theory ensue.
Let’s get one thing out of the way up front: This film is as 1980s as it gets. 80s hair, 80s computers, 80s video games, 80s nuclear fears, and Ally Sheedy too. Although “powerful” computers with modems into which you plug your rotary telephone handset may provoke some chuckles today, the story is as relevant as ever and maybe, with the rise of artificial intelligence, even moreso. And if you lived through this time, 1980s-ness of everything in WarGames may be an appealing exercise in nostalgia for the era.
The key to this film’s success is Matthew Broderick, in a performance that showcased why he would soon become a star. Despite the extraordinary proceedings around him, Broderick consistently makes David into an utterly believable teenager, with the jumble of ideas, emotions, and capacities that are common at that age. He has particularly good byplay with Shakespearean actor John Wood, who plays a computer scientist who has lost his son and his hope for humanity, and achieves a measure of restoration on both fronts from David.
The plot developments could have been credibility-straining, but the script is smart enough and Badham is skilled enough to sell everything to the audience. The film is particularly good at giving the audience just enough of a technical explanation to make plot points credible without ever turning into impenetrable nerdspeak. Some of the adult authority figure characters are a bit cartoonish, reflecting I assume the studio aiming for a teenaged audience. That said, I enjoyed re-watching WarGames in mid-life as much as I did when I was an adolescent. This film is superb entertainment, including its nail-biting and satisfying conclusion.
p.s. Look fast for Maury Chaykin as one of Broderick’s circle of turbonerds.