David was an early computer hacker, who accidentally breaks into the mainframe of NORAD. He’s able to access WOPR via a backdoor placed in the system by its original designer – who named the supercomputer Joshua. What David doesn’t understand at first is that he has activated a simulation that will place the world on the brink of nuclear war.
For about a decade I taught a class called National Security Policy via Film, and one year I assigned this film to students who mostly grew up in the 2000s. They hated it. This revealed to me how very much the world had changed in such a short time period. To them, the Cold War was already a historical artifact. To them, the internet had always existed and video games were played on consoles and smart phones. They literally couldn’t wrap their brains around how cutting-edge the computer technology in WarGames seemed to those of us who saw the film in the year it was released. Even more, they simply weren’t able to comprehend the fear those of us who lived during the Cold War felt about the possibility of nuclear annihilation. For them terrorists were the threat of the day, who cared about weapons that could kill billions rather than thousands – it wsa old news.
But for me, WarGames perfectly captured how I felt growing up. I lived just a couple miles from Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, Alaska. Because of its proximity to the Soviet Union (although not within visual distance!) and strategic importance, it would have been the first American city struck in a nuclear exchange – as the audience finds out near the end of the film. My friends and I already fully understood this fact. Deep in our bellies, we could feel it. For those of us living in Cold War America, the threat of nuclear war depicted in the WarGames was all too plausible.
This is why even though the film begins as a charming but fairly standard issue teen drama, it was able to quickly grab the attention of audiences (and all but a few curmudgeonly critics) when it transitioned to become a fast-paced thriller.
What strikes me most when watching the film today is not its focus on the nuclear danger, however, but the way that the writers (Lawrence Lasker and Walter Parkes) prophesied that the true danger society faced was handing over control of society to big tech. I could make a compelling argument that, at least to this point in our history, Silicon Valley has done far more damage to this nation than have nuclear weapons (or even the threat of a nuclear exchange). In fact, I don’t even think it’s a very hard case to prove.
For all of these reasons, WarGames is a bona fide classic. A prophetic thriller with some teen drama for good measure, what more could one ask for in a film!
(Up Next: Trading Places)