WARGAMES (John Badham, 1983)

The film that most justifiably claims the accolade of the most purely entertaining English-language film of the 1980s might be WarGames, a film capable of royally entertaining a viewer through any number of viewings. Shakespeare in this case had no reason to apply. Nevertheless, the comedy of a high-tech teenage brat’s coming of age was popular in 1983 among adults and school children alike, although some of the former reacted against it when some of the latter took it upon themselves to imitate its hero’s worst behavior. The era of adolescent computer crime now officially over (9/11 has dampened the enthusiasm of even the stray culprit here and there), it’s possible to view again WarGames without taint of displeasure. Of course, one reason for doing so is that, pranks aside, David Lightman, the highschooler that Matthew Broderick terrifically plays, ultimately evidences behavior worthy of youthful emulation.

John Badham is no auteur and certainly no artist; the films he makes target an audience, manipulating their responses rather than pursuing serious interests or thematic development. As a rule, Badham doesn’t make good movies; what he tries to do instead is make financially successful ones. But, for once, here he had an extraordinary script from which to work, and it plainly inspired him. The authors, Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes, then, merit much of the praise that WarGames garners. In any case, Badham’s (still) best film makes sense where his earlier Saturday Night Fever (1977) does not. Unlike his older working-class counterpart, Tony Manero, the middle-class seventeen-year-old of WarGames is not required to renounce his skilled interest. Lightman’s absorption in computers and computer games is as fundamentally escapist as Manero’s dancing in the disco retreat that the video arcade in WarGames echoes; but, while Lightman learns to discipline his energies and develop his “art,” Manero, incredibly, gives up dancing as a solemn sacrifice to his “growing up.” WarGames sets the matter right by allowing Lightman to grow up differently, less harshly and schematically, with himself intact.

The two characters compare interestingly. Like Manero, Lightman is, at the outset, self-centered, irresponsible and escapist, only sufficiently cocooned by indulgent parents and genteel suburban surroundings to have made even less of an accommodation with reality. Manero’s fevered dancing transports him from the monotony of the work-day city; Lightman’s computer escapades transport him from his Seattle home and high school, both of which cramp his “style.” Both boys live at home but are mentally fleeing their family: Manero, because he is so deeply entangled in his, which is always right on top of him; Lightman, because he has an ineffectual father and an aloof though dutifully nagging mother.

Lightman is a fairly typical American teenager. He is a sloppy, rude and otiose student whose life is absorbed by video games and the home computer that dominates the sanctuary of his bedroom. (The door, which can be locked from the outside, warns: “THIS IS A SECURE AREA. AUTHORIZED ENTRY ONLY. NO EXCEPTIONS.”) The powerful computer system enforces a bit of order on an otherwise untidy room and untidier existence. Through repeated shots of the boy’s reflection on his home terminal screen or an arcade game’s encasing glass, Badham is able to suggest that Lightman seems most real to himself in relation to the computer in his room or the arcade game in his alternative retreat. But these reflections are, for us, disconcerting; Lightman appears pale and ghost-like, as if his identity were an illusion (how in fact adolescents often feel about themselves) and his life’s energy had been drawn out of him. In other words, Lightman seems possessed by machines that render him their object. In line with this, when he plays the arcade game his tics and spooky concentration suggest an inverted energy—energy without exuberance. In Fever, we see the same quality in Manero’s dancing; there is the occasion for joy, but no joy. In this context, it is worth noting that, in between Fever and Games, Badham filmed a version of Dracula (1979), about the “living dead.”

Fortunately, Lightman changes; he comes to life. The irresponsible escapist evolves into a concerned citizen. Relationships that form between him and two other persons—Jennifer, a school-mate who becomes his girlfriend and adventurous companion; Stephen Falken, a computer scientist who becomes his surrogate father—result in this transformation. The upshot is that Lightman avoids Manerobotism; he does not turn his back on computers as an expendable childhood folly but, instead, learns to use them toward more worthwhile aims than doctoring biology grades and phone bills—cheating and stealing. For Lightman, technology becomes a personally expressive and socially beneficial tool, not a force controlling or a means of escaping his life.

The film, then, essays the road that he must travel to reach this point. His youthful egotism and self-doubts are not alone in providing obstacles, nor can they be wholly credited for his initial escapism. Indeed, the film provides a larger and officially “responsible” context for this escapism: as a nation, our technologically obsessed military-mindedness in the nuclear age. In the high-stake nuclear “games” that they play, the film asks, do adults provide the most reassuring role models for the young? The film thus begins, not with Lightman, but with two U.S. Air Force missile commanders who are introduced in a pre-credit sequence whose first eerie images convey paranoia: two glowing yellow-red headlights emerge from the blustery dark: a car pulling up to what appears to be a deserted farmhouse. Behind two steel doors (like the boy’s bedroom, a “secure” area), the two men—the replacement team—are apprised of a Soviet attack and receive an order to launch the ICBMs under their custodianship. The older of the two, Captain Lawson (a John-Glenn look-alike, John Spencer), cannot bring himself to obey the order, which would turn the Cold War into a hot war of spilt blood. Having previously chatted most amiably with him, the younger man now turns a gun on Lawson. What neither knows is that the “Soviet attack” is a simulation by our side to test the capacity of our missile commanders to perform their stressful ultimate duty. It’s all a game. At NORAD, the U.S. Defense Department’s war operations headquarters, we later learn, 22% of our men refused to launch their missiles. As a result, all commanders are replaced by dependable electronic relays. We see Lawson—still alive, thank goodness—shake his head in disbelief while watching his permanent replacement being installed: a panel of fiercely flickering red lights—an electronic inferno. Still later, in the midst of another simulation, but one over which the military now has no control, a war computer subsystem tries to launch the missiles itself: a predicament possible because humans are not manning the missiles—a point Badham underscores by repeatedly showing the missile command post bereft of all human presence.

The “game” has become everything. Fittingly, the NORAD war room resembles an overgrown game parlor, its code name, Crystal Palace, echoing Grand Palace, the name of the arcade where David Lightman is first introduced. Games are repeatedly identified with NORAD, from the wargame-playing computer to the painfully unfunny gag perpetrated against a touring visitor who is asked to press a button only to be momentarily frightened into believing that she has set off a catastrophe. “Someone is playing a game with us,” Beringer, the general in command at NORAD, says at one point. Indeed, the whole atmosphere reeks of games and game-playing.

By maneuvering his way through this “responsible” “adult” world, Lightman eventually saves it, and the larger world outside, from nuclear destruction. Hero though he may be, he is one of two joint protagonists. For the film also gives us JOSHUA, a computer system designed to play strategic games and, from the outcomes, to learn from its own mistakes—the mistakes that we cannot afford to make in the real world of global conflict. A self-teaching student thus capable of teaching us, JOSHUA was named by Stephen Falken (John Wood, excellent), its designer and original programmer, for another Joshua: the baby whom Falken lost, along with his wife, in an auto accident soon after the infant’s birth. The linkage of names is important: JOSHUA was borne not only of a scientist’s curiosity but also of a father’s love for the son whom he wished to provide with a world without war, a world of peace.

In a way, Lightman is JOSHUA’s human counterpart or brother. He, too, comes to exemplify the capacity to learn, and he comes to enact the role of Falken’s surrogate son. Their relationship is mutually beneficial (not to mention world-saving). Through it, Lightman becomes responsible and is integrated into society, while something similar happens to Falken, who is re-connected to the humanity—his own, and humanity in general—from which he withdrew in despair over the unimaginable deaths of wife and child. For Falken, the paternal feelings that are rekindled in him also rewaken all the hopefulness he had once felt regarding his son. Falken’s life, then, is renewed as Lightman’s “new” adult life begins.

Much of the film’s plot engineers the coming together of the surrogate father and surrogate son. One evening, tantalized by Protovision’s advance promotions, Lightman tries using his computer to locate the company’s computer in order to access—steal, that is—the programs for their “amazing” new games. Without realizing it, he makes contact instead with Protovision’s satirical prototype, the mammoth U.S. Defense Department computer system, which “plays an endless series of war games.” But to “crack it” Lightman must think his way through the maze indicated by the list of games—from “Falken’s Maze” to “Global Thermonuclear War”—that appears on his terminal screen. What could be the password that will gain him entry through the system’s “back door”? To figure this out, he researches the ostensibly deceased Falken, reading his books, studying his obituary. A video tape provides the critical clue. Recalling the home movie in Claude Chabrol’s brilliant, trenchant Que la bête meure (1969), another film about a man whose young son has been killed, and again in an auto accident (a hit-and-run), the silent tape—a sorrowful glimpse into Falken’s haunted memory—shows the proud father holding up the child he will soon lose. Falken radiates commitment to Joshua, a fact that especially impresses Jennifer (Ally Sheedy, cracklingly good), to whom Lightman shows the tape: “He’s amazing looking!” she remarks. With this response of hers as catalyst, Lightman—with more a calculating mind than an understanding heart—now guesses Falken’s password: “JOSHUA.” He is “in.”

Electing to “play” Global Thermonuclear War, Lightman, ever the smart-aleck, chooses the Soviet Union as his side and the U.S. as his opponent, and then launches an attack. At NORAD (yet another “secure” area—a world unto itself behind a steel door), this child’s play is taken for the real thing, with “authentications” appearing on one giant screen after another. When Lightman exits his home computer, at NORAD all the screens-within-the-movie screen go riotously blank. With a surfeit of artificial intelligence, however, JOSHUA refuses to stop “playing” until the “game”—in effect, World War III—is “won.” Traced and abducted by the F.B.I., Lightman is pegged as a Soviet spy. He escapes. Having failed to convince anyone at NORAD that the Soviet attack isn’t real, Lightman—later, joined by Jennifer—seeks out Falken, who is alive after all, in order to avert the impending nuclear disaster. This responsible mission ultimately succeeds by a hairbreadth in preventing Armageddon.

This synopsis suggests a Hitchcock thriller. Indeed, the film contains numerous allusions to Hitchcock films. For instance: Lightman’s being dragged from the NORAD war room screaming in protest recalls the courtroom scene in Frenzy (1972); a phone booth appears from The Birds (1963); the crop-duster from North by Northwest (1959) also pops up, only this time it’s a pterodactyl—it’s a Birds attack—as Lightman and Jennifer hit the ground. But why these Hitchcock references and others? Is Badham merely a copycat or plagiarist, or do the allusions accumulate into a thematic resonance? The last possibility is the case here; for the allusions underline the extent to which Lightman’s adventure, as in a Hitchcock film, is in part a willed nightmare by someone seeking punishment for his transgressive wishes and behavior. In effect, Lightman gets spanked—and soundly—for his irresponsibility and childish pranks, for not only is he in danger of losing his life, but he may also prove responsible for ending the world. On one level just another version of the escape from reality he has been pursuing, this time the fantasy turns back on itself and on David in an adult, all-too-real way. Together, the fantasy and its retributive dose of reality express typical adolescent ambivalence: the wish to remain safe and secure and, at the same time, a contrary wish to take on the “real” (adult) world and meet its demands.

What more responsible thing can a teenager imagine doing than saving the planet? David’s mission, borrowed from Hitchcock’s The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938), resolves his ambivalence. In order to locate Falken—who, officially dead, lives in seclusion under an assumed identity provided by the State Department—David and Jennifer take a ferry to Goose Island, Oregon. Oregon (or perhaps Washington) certainly should have a Goose Island, but in actuality no such place exists. From the moment we glimpse it at sunset (through William A. Fraker’s gorgeous color lensing), though, we know it for what it is: a half-way station between past and present, life and death—a refuge out of a dream, with a primitive landscape, and water as blue as Crater Lake’s. What appears to be a pterodactyl—an extinct prehistoric winged reptile—swoops down from an otherwise vacant sky, briefly obliterating our sense of time. (Bird imagery abounds in the film: helicopters, bombers, Goose Island, even Falken’s name.) The “pterodactyl,” it turns out, is a remote-controlled model, and the grownup playing a child by flying this elaborate kite is Stephen Falken. His absorption at play, his potty manner, his ridiculous bangs all bespeak a man who has taken to an insulated fantasy world of his own. He has withdrawn from a world that deprived him of the two persons he loved most, and his regressive behavior (along with our memory of the video tape) becomes our gauge for fathoming his pain. We watch Falken at solitary play, knowing that this is what he would have done with Joshua had Joshua lived—and knowing the contradictory motivation: at once, to numb the pain of the loss and to keep the pain alive as a way of keeping his love alive and, in a sense, Joshua alive.

The children beseech his help. Mere hours remain before JOSHUA will “win” the “game” and fool our side into setting off world war; only Falken, with his knowledge of what the system he designed is doing, might convince the civilian in charge of JOSHUA, former protégé Jack McKittrick (Dabney Coleman, perfect), that the “Soviet attack” is a fantasy solely emanating from the machine. But for Falken to confront this wargame botch would require full acceptance that JOSHUA is all that remains of (as Jennifer insightfully puts it) “the real Joshua.” To save the world, which means little to him now, Falken must give up the alternative world that he has created and into which he has withdrawn, becoming there, by his childishness, his own Joshua in an attempt to deny Joshua’s death. Can he do this? Can he face his loss head-on and embrace his adult responsibility? David and Jennifer little understand how much they are asking of him; how could they? “This is unreal,” David angrily tells Falken. “You don’t care about death because you’re already dead.” But what losses have made him so!

Still, whatever Falken’s depth of pain, 72 million people do not deserve to die because of it. The children can say nothing, though, to persuade him to their selfish position that they have a right to live. The silent film that Falken shows them of the dinosaurs that once ruled the earth—another simulation—suggests how entrenched his regressive, defeatist attitude is. “Nature,” he pontificates, “knows when to give up”—something that JOSHUA, he adds, never was able to learn. This and his conclusion that extinction is humanity’s destiny, however, are intellectualized subterfuge, sheer rationalization meant to cover up (from himself and the intruders) his grief and anguish. What finally persuades him to help is not the children’s specious arguments but simply the children themselves; their presence restores Falken to his paternal role (in introducing the dinosaur film he flippantly says, “Come, my children; I’m going to tell you a bedtime story”), and this, in turn, rekindles those feelings that fill the role—feelings now transferred from Joshua to Jennifer and David. Falken makes his decision to help only after the two visitors have left, for it is their sudden absence that moves him to value their just-ended presence and their lives—lives he can protect and spare, as he was unable to do in the case of his son.

If they fail in themselves, his pleas to Falken nevertheless cast Lightman in a responsible role—that of teacher—vis-à-vis an adult reluctant to act as one. (This makes amends for the boy’s earlier cruel put-down of his biology teacher.) By becoming also a kind of son to him, Lightman ameliorates Falken’s isolation and alienation, reviving Falken’s hope for humanity’s future—the future that Falken once identified with his biological son and with the safe world that JOSHUA, the son’s namesake, was invented to help ensure. By his committed effort to bring the “dead” Falken back to life, as it were, Lightman demonstrates a new take-charge attitude—and, when he believes they are being pursued by an F.B.I. helicopter, his protectiveness toward Jennifer evidences his new sense of concern for others.

The helicopter—a “real,” useful pterodactyl—is piloted by Falken, who flies the children to NORAD in a race to save the world. Our side is ready to retaliate against the Soviets for their presumed first-strike offensive. Convinced of the attack, McKittrick disputes Falken, who then tells General Beringer, who must quickly recommend a course of action to the president, that the indications of an attack appearing on the war room’s diverse screens are “a computer-enhanced hallucination, a fantasy.” Since the Soviets know that we would destroy their nation if they attacked us, Falken continues, it makes no sense to believe that they are attacking us. He implores, “Tell the president to ride out the attack.” (We additionally know from the Cuban missile crisis, of course, that between the Soviet Union and the U.S. only the latter was demonstrably prone to resolve a confrontation by taking the world to the end of the world.) Referring to the NORAD war computer system, Falken adds: “General, you are listening to a machine. Do the world a favor and do not act like one.” As personal revelation rather than strategic logic or geopolitical insight, this conclusion is stirring, for by distinguishing between human and machine—an expression of the film’s humanistic basis—Falken, giving up the ghost of the real Joshua, shows a renewed humane commitment that precludes satisfaction in anguished memory or compensatory escape from reality.

Moreover, Beringer himself may be better persuaded by the current of paternal feeling (for Joshua, Jennifer and David) that informs and transcends Falken’s argument than by the argument itself; for if Falken is appearing to act like a concerned father again, Beringer appears to do so for the first time. Addressing the men at various target point stations, he discards his by-rote—that is, machine-like—military tone for a suddenly caring, intimate tone. At the projected instant of impact, when it turns out that no one is hit, NORAD overflows with familial hugs and relief. However, the “son,” JOSHUA, is not yet finished. Usurping parental prerogatives by taking control of the war computer system’s functions and locking all others out, JOSHUA scans every conceivable numeric combination to find the codes to launch the missiles by itself. Jennifer chides David: “I told you not to start playing those games.” Eureka: “Games!” Lightman announces. Confronted by his own earlier irresponsibility, which JOSHUA now seems to be mimicking, Lightman realizes that games, the way into the maze, may also be the way out. “If it wants to play games, let’s play,” he continues, positioning himself as father in relation to the errant JOSHUA.

Encouraged by Falken, whose youthful extension he has become, Lightman moves to assume control of JOSHUA; and when he does, his firm, newly confident steps are in sharp contrast to earlier ones when, on his way home from school, oblivious to the rest of the world, he carelessly went through a puddle. At David’s side, Falken counters others’ skepticism (especially McKittrick’s), while Jennifer, her faith restored by David’s self-confidence, also takes his part: “He has done this before.” Supported by Falken’s silent beams and nods of encouragement, Lightman calls up the original game list, eventually accessing Tic-Tac-Toe, which, though unlisted, he knows has been programmed into JOSHUA as an unwinnable game. The connection he has drawn between this game and Global Thermonuclear War is on target; he’s “in.” JOSHUA now experiences all possible combinations of Tic-Tac-Toe, all of which must end in a draw; and, because the system is capable of learning from its own mistakes, it might—as David himself has just done, only in reverse—apply this to Global Thermonuclear War, projectively testing out all the possible outcomes of that. This is precisely what happens. “WINNER: NONE” is the solution JOSHUA reaches and records for each projected first strike-retaliation combination in every world-wide arena. “What is it doing?” an astonished Jennifer asks. Now it’s David’s time to beam: “It’s learning.” Thus the once indifferent student betrays the sheer joy of learning that he has been experiencing—a powerful moment. For its part, of course, JOSHUA declines to launch the missiles (shades of Captain Lawson!), each of whose launch codes it has broken—a sign that “the game” is no longer all-important. (“A strange game,” it tells Falken about Global Thermonuclear War; “the only winning move is not to play.”) So it is with David, who has faced reality and faced down a potential holocaust. That name Lightman: By penetrating his own nightmare-adventure, David has brought light to the world. (Underscoring this with panache and wit, the lights at NORAD literally come back up when JOSHUA completes the feverish analysis of nuclear war that has strained the compound’s power supply.) David, too, is apt, for Lightman has resourcefully subdued the Goliath of an immense military-technological network.

Finally, Falken and Lightman silently acknowledge the bond between them—perhaps the film’s warmest moment. Even McKittrick respectfully shakes the hand of the mentor he earlier disparaged as having “never understood the practical applications of his work,” and he shares with David, whom he had mistrusted, an unexpected funny hug. David confidently embraces Jennifer; their reciprocative sense of caring and sharing augurs well for their relationship. A spirit of relief and reconciliation charges this generous finale, capping a delightful film that celebrates the joy of learning. Also, the film justifies its didactic premise in a most welcome way: not by haranguing against war but by demonstrating such manifold possibilities of human renewal and growth that leave one feeling happy to be alive—a defeat for the whole idea of war if ever there was one.






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