Monday, December 28, 2015

#1,960. WarGames (1983)

Directed By: John Badham

Starring: Matthew Broderick, Ally Sheedy, John Wood

Tag line: "Is it a game, or is it real?"

Trivia: According to John Badham, the scene of the jeep trying to crash through the gate at NORAD and turning over was an actual accident. The jeep was supposed to continue through the gate

While it’s anti-nuke message may not resonate as strongly today as it did in the 1980s (when the Cold War was in full swing), there’s enough danger and excitement scattered throughout director John Badham’s WarGames to ensure it’s still a fun watch.

Teenager David Lightman (Matthew Broderick) is a computer whiz. He’s so good, in fact, that he’s figured out a way to hack into his school’s network to change both his grades and those of his new “friend”, Jennifer (Ally Sheedy). So, when David learns that a big-time game manufacturer is planning to release a slew of video games in a few months, he does his darnedest to hook into the company’s system so he can get a sneak peek at them. After dialing in to what he believes is their mainframe, he and Jennifer select a “game” titled “Global Thermonuclear War”. The problem is, David actually found his way into the military’s fully automated defense system, which now thinks the Soviet Union is launching a surprise nuclear attack against the U.S.!

Not realizing what’s happened, the military’s top men, located in the underground headquarters of NORAD (the North American Aerospace Defense Command), start taking steps to retaliate against the Russians. After discovering that the Soviets aren’t really attacking, both the system’s administrator, Dr. John McKittrick (Dabney Coleman) and Army Gen. Jack Berringer (Barry Corbin), launch an investigation to see what went wrong, and it leads them right back to David. Convinced he’s an enemy agent, they take the frightened teenager into custody, but the gang at NORAD isn’t quite done yet, because even though David has logged off, the computer is still playing Global Thermonuclear War, and unless they can persuade it that was hasn't broken out, it’s game over for the entire world in 24 short hours.

Setting the stage with an intense opening sequence at a nuclear missile silo (which features a very young Michael Madsen, as one of two soldiers with his finger on the launch button), WarGames is both a solid adventure movie (to prevent the computer from starting World War III, David and Jennifer attempt to track down the system’s original programmer, Professor Falkan, played by John Wood) and a first-class thriller (the scene where David sneaks out of the NORAD command center is a nail-biter).

Broderick is convincing as the cocky computer nerd, and he and Sheedy make a good team as the unlikely heroes going up against the U.S. military. Equally as impressive is Dabney Coleman (playing the heavy once again, like he did in 9 to 5 and Modern Problems) as the suspicious administrator trying to cover his own ass, yet my favorite character is Barry Corbin’s Gen. Berringer, a hard-nosed leader of men who isn’t afraid let McKittrick know exactly what he thinks of his new-fangled defense system. The continuous give-and-take between these two characters results in some of the film’s biggest laughs (as McKittrick and his associates discuss how to reprogram the computer, Gen. Berringer says, quite emphatically, that he’d “piss on a spark plug” if he thought it would help).

Modern audiences may find the final scene (complete with a “moral to the story”) a bit heavy-handed (though I assure you it didn’t seem as such back in the day, when nuclear war felt like a genuine threat), but even if the finale causes you to roll your eyes a little, WarGames still packs enough thrills into its 114 minutes to keep you on the edge of your seat.

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