I was almost 16 years old when Wargames was released in 1983, and it quickly became one of my favorite movies. You didn't have to be a teenage hacker (I wasn't) to thrill to the sight of a high school wiz kid saving the world. But what particularly captivated me was the overt political message. A few months later, I wrote a play about the dangers of nuclear weapons, which seemed to impress my English teacher, but maybe she was just giving me points for nervous outrage.
I wasn't the only person nervous about global thermonuclear war back in those days. Protests against Reagan's missile buildup abounded in 1982-83, and people's fears culminated in the broadcast on Nov. 20, 1983 of an infamous TV special The Day After, which portrayed what life would be like after a nuclear holocaust. Everyone knew what the DEFCON scale meant. And I distinctly remember our social studies teacher asking how many students thought a nuclear war would happen in our lifetime, and most of our hands went up. Imagine today's chatter about global warming but on a topic that could instantaneously and without warning destroy millions of people.
Watching Wargames again 25 years later, I'm not surprised that it feels dated and a bit slow. It's amazing how much more frenetic today's blockbusters are. And for better or worse, few of us worry much about computers accidentally setting off World War III. But I am still impressed that the movie decided to take on such a controversial and, let's admit, depressing subject. And Wargames tackles it head-on, with nuclear war a real and awful possibility, not like the ridiculous set-up of global warming in The Day after Tomorrow. When Matthew Broderick (acting in just his second film and still working out the nervous tics) "teaches" the computer to stop the wargame, the machine remarks, "A strange game. The only winning move is not to play." No matter how simplistic that might sound, it had real political bite in 1983, and even today it makes me shiver a bit not knowing if our own leaders believe it.
What I didn't realize in 1983 was how much the Wargames script owed to Stanley Kubrick's masterpieces Dr. Strangelove and 2001. The former is directly echoed in the opening scene, as two men in charge of a nuclear missile receive a coded message to launch the bomb. But while irony abounds in Slim Pickens flying a bomber over the Soviet Union, Wargames plays the scenario straight and for maximum tension. And as there's no irony in Wargames, there's little of 2001's metaphysics, just the plot point of a computer gone amuck.
But if Wargames lacks the depth of its forebears, it does provide the winning smile of a 20-year-old Ally Sheedy, which should not be underestimated. And it also has a beautifully executed faux ending. Unlike today's multiple endings that feel like they're pre-programmed in some screenwriting software, Wargames makes you think victory has been achieved only to snatch the rug out from under you. And in this case, that misdirection is what had us pondering the political message as we walked out of the theater. Yeah, Matthew Broderick might've saved the day, but would anyone be able to the next time?