‘WarGames’ Is a Top-Notch Nuclear Blockbuster

In 1980s New England, you knew there was a Soviet nuclear warhead with your name on it. We were home to the United States Air Force facilities hosting nuclear weapons and a massive hemisphere scanning anti-missile radar. Moreover, our world-class electronics research corridor, dubbed ‘America’s Technology Highway,’ rivalled Silicon Valley. Each base and transistor made New England a target-rich environment, and it scared the hell out of me. So to 11-year-old me, 1983’s summer blockbuster WarGames felt real, terrifying, and at the same time thrilling.

Since humanity split the atom and retooled it for war, the public’s awareness and fear of the nuclear sword of Damocles ebbed and flowed. In the 1960s, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of destruction as the Cold War threatened to go hot, potentially to 100,000,000° Celsius, or the temperature of a nuclear explosion. The time spawned films like Fail-Safe, Dr. Strangelove, The Bedford Incident, and The Day the Earth Caught Fire

The 1970s nuclear détente cooled worries, but by the 1980s, the spectre of atomic annihilation returned with the nuclear knife fight of the Euromissile Crisis. Varying degrees of terrified or worried viewers watched The Day After, The Manhattan Project, Amazing Grace and Chuck, Fat Man and Little Boy, the horrifying Threads, Miracle Mile, Testament, When the Wind Blows, and finally, Wargames. Notably, three of the 1980s films targeted the under-18-year-old market, with Wargames the popular standout. 

Suppose you haven’t see WarGames, first of all, shame on you. I won’t spoil too much, but let’s just say the plot is the classic ticking timebomb. In the film, Matthew Broderick’s high school hacker, Lightman, discovers a computer backdoor into the United States Air Force’s War Operation Plan Response, or WOPR, Artificial Intelligence system, also known as Joshua. Lightman, thinking he is playing a game, initiates a real-life nuclear countdown with the machine controlling the United States ballistic missile arsenal.

Helmed by John Badham, the director behind Saturday Night Fever, WarGames captured a type of techno-thriller not seen in America for decades. Films like The Andromeda Strain and Colossus: The Forbin Project wrestled with technological themes in exciting, decidedly melodramatic ways. WarGames returned to that neglected style with a straightforward plot pitting youthful curiosity and technological hubris against American exceptionalism. 

As a vehicle for Broderick, a hot property at the time, and Ally Sheedy, who would bounce next to the iconic Breakfast Club, WarGames could only work with the addition of “responsible adults.” Beyond the youthfully charismatic Broderick and Sheedy, WarGames is populated by the smarmy and droll Dabney Coleman, while the film’s emotional heart comes from the compelling British actor John Wood, with Barry Corbin leveraging his superb drawl and hell-fire acting as a USAF commanding general. They are the grown-ups defending nuclear weapons while simultaneously trembling at the thought of atomic destruction. 

It is impossible to overstate the massive, broad social shift against nuclear weapons in the years around WarGames release. While the movie did not motivate change, it perfectly reflected the mood of the day. Bulging arsenals of nuclear weapons were in American backyards or European forests. While the world went about its daily life, there was the possibility of instant death just a button push away. Over time, popular critical mass reached a peak both in America and Europe. As Michael Mandelbaum wrote in his piece, The Anti-Nuclear Weapons Movements, for Americans, “nuclear issues seemed to arise, suddenly, like an abrupt, unexpected change in the weather.” Europeans, however, had been on edge for years after the United States planned to station 572 medium-range Pershing missiles and Ground Launched Cruise Missile at the Soviet Union’s doorstep in Europe. Importantly, women-led groups took anti-nuclear weapons advocacy to the next level, creating peace camps in the UK, at Greenham Common, and outside the Seneca Army Depot, in New York State. These popular movements, encircling nuclear weapons facilities, were joined by protests in cities around the world. Inevitably, the anti-nuclear sentiment would appear on film. Hollywood would couch nuclear armageddon in many ways, but in Wargames, it chose a distinctly middle-class American setting.

WarGames is also a snapshot of 1980s America. Mopeds, video game arcades, aerobics classes, and oversized computers. The latter was also, for many, an introduction to the hacker subculture. A novice viewer may scoff at the dial-up phone modem and 8-inch floppy disc technology used by Broderick’s Lightman. However, in the early 1980s, hackers were a unique breed, leveraging every shortcut, trick, or back door to work their way into computer or telephone networks. Broderick’s character dips into the hacker bag of tricks several times, including a public payphone hack with a beer can pull tab. So while technological chicanery may date WarGames, the core peril is undiminished, and in many ways, more pressing in a heavily digital and AI-managed world. You’d think a movie about near-nuclear annihilation wouldn’t put butts in seats, but WarGames delivered. Sure, it never topped the box office, peaking at number three because it was released a week-and-a-half after Return of the Jedi. Still, over seventeen weeks, WarGames steadily performed through the summer holidays and into the season when many American teens, their core market, went back to school. WarGames put adults and teens into the same theatres for an experience that damned the socially inattentive while demanding the viewer exit with an unyielding disdain for nuclear weapons.

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