“The only winning move” | WarGames (1983)

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Teenager David Lightman, obsessed with his new personal computer, uses it to hack into a telephone network and access pre-release videogames. He has made a mistake. He has not hacked into a videogames developer but rather into NORAD – North American Aerospace Defense Command. While David believes he is playing a war game a powerful supercomputer known as WOPR is quietly planning the Third World War.

This is the premise of Wargames, a 1983 teen thriller directed by John Badham. The film kick-started the careers of stars Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy and was the fifth-highest grossing film in America that year. Today it is a remarkable time capsule, expressing in a most entertaining fashion one of the greatest social fears of the 1980s: thermonuclear war.

Despite being based around a fear of nuclear conflict, Wargames was originally developed around a much less ominous subject matter: child prodigies. The film’s writers were Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes. Parkes said: ‘I started researching the issue of genius kids born into environments which did not recognise their talents. It just happened that, at the same time, Larry had an interesting idea based on the character of Stephen Hawking, a leading astrophysicist at Cambridge.’[1]

Parkes and Lasker combined their ideas to develop a story about a young unrecognised prodigy who meets, and is taken under the wing of, an older and already successful genius. ‘That was really the beginning,’ said Parkes. ‘At that point there were no video games, no computer, no nuclear war.’[2]

The writers titled their proposed screenplay The Genius, and set about undertaking further research – beginning at SRI: the Stanford Research Institute. This introduced them to researcher Peter Schwartz, who would become WarGames’ creative consultant. ‘There was a new subculture of extremely bright kids,’ explained Schwartz, ‘developing into what would become known as hackers. SRI was in Palo Alto, and all the computer nerds were around: Xerox PARC, Apple just starting – it was all happening right there. SRI was node number two of the Internet. We talked about the fact that the kinds of computer games that were being played were blow-up-the-world games. Space war games. Military simulations. Things like Global Thermonuclear War. SRI was one of the main players in this. SRI was, in fact, running computerized war games for the military.’[3]

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The use of computers – and computer games – in the United States military introduced a new angle to the proposed screenplay. On 15 September 1980 Parkes and Lasker made a research trip to the North American Air Defense Command (known as NORAD) in Colorado. The trip had been arranged via the Air Force Los Angeles Public Affairs Office, and introduced the writers to NORAD’s commander-in-chief Lt. Gen. James Hartinger. It was in conversation with Hartinger that the writers finally hit upon a new core concept of their film: that their teenage genius could use his personal computer and a telephone line to accidentally hack into NORAD and almost trigger its missile systems – potentially causing World War III in the process.

While Parkes and Lasker both insist they talked extensively with Hartinger during their visit, the Air Force denied that such a conversation ever took place. ‘Hartinger didn’t talk to them,’ said public affairs officer Lt. Col. Al Alderfer, ‘and he certainly didn’t sit around and B.S. with them. He never addressed them directly expect maybe only to answer questions in a Q&A session.’[4]

For a time Parkes and Lasker toyed with the idea of David accidentally connecting via computer to some form of orbiting space laser, but they soon abandoned that idea in favour of something a little more grounded and realistic. Nuclear weapons were a key social concern at the time, with newly elected President Ronald Reagan promising to massively increase US military spending and committing to pushing the Soviet Union to ‘the ash heap of history’.

To better understand how telephone hacking was done, the writers interviewed John Draper, an early hacker whose success in using a toy whistle to activate unlimited free calls on his telephone had earned him the nickname “Captain Crunch”.

In developing Falken, the disabled genius based on Stephen Hawking, Parkes and Lasker based the character’s look and mannerisms on pop musician John Lennon. They even approached Lennon, via a mutual contact, to see if he would be interested in playing the role should the film be produced. Lennon seemed keen on discussing the idea, but was tragically murdered shortly afterwards.

Before long Parkes and Lasker had completed their screenplay, retitled from The Genius to WarGames. Producer Leonard Goldberg picked up the screenplay and began shipping it around Hollywood’s studios. It was soon optioned by Universal Pictures.

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During Universal’s development process it was hoped that the United States Department of Defense might be willing to support the film through the loan of vehicles for the shoot, or by allowing production members onto military facilities for research. While the Department was initially amenable, its support was withdrawn after their liaisons read Parkes and Lasker’s screenplay. Parkes noted military personnel ‘had a number of complaints about the fictionalised portions. In the movie, we portray two missile commanders who are unable to carry out their commands. But in our research we’ve found countless cases of alcohol and drug cases among missile commanders.’[5]

The Department of Defense’s objections to the WarGames screenplay were simple and twofold: firstly, the situation presented within the film was not actually possible; secondly, the screenplay put the Air Force in an extremely negative light. In both cases the Department’s assessment was correct: computer-controlled missile launches simply did not exist, and the screenplay painted the military in a remarkably unflattering light.

WarGames does stand out remarkably in this regard. By 1983 the USA was three years into President Ronald Reagan’s first term. Public opinion of him was high, and after more than a decade of growing cynicism about the US government and military patriotism was back in style. In many respects the political angle of WarGames seems more suited to the Watergate-era 1970s than the early 1980s.

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By mid-1982 Universal Pictures was growing wary of Goldberg’s budgetary demands of US$8 million dollars. They put the project into turnaround, essentially dropping all plans to produce the film but making the rights available to any rival studio willing to pay Universal for the development already undertaken. It was immediately picked up by rival studio MGM/UA. Despite MGM’s enthusiasm for the project, budget concerns continued to plague it. The studio cancelled the production twice before finally reaching a compromise figure that both studio accountants and Goldberg agreed would be viable. By this time the budget estimate had inflated to almost US$14 million.

When it was announced that MGM had taken over the production, Leonard Goldberg was approached by the Air Force. They offered to discuss a new deal to modify the screenplay in return for full cooperation. The Air Force’s offer was rejected, since adjusting the story to reflect actual military practice would actually destroy the film’s core storyline.

The search for a director settled rapidly on Martin Brest, who had made a successful debut with his 1979 comedy Going in Style. ‘Marty saw it and loved it,’ said Parkes. ‘He had been wooed by every studio as a young, hot director, and therefore he ended up in charge of the project.’[6] During pre-production Brest became dissatisfied with Parkes and Lasker’s screenplay, and insisted on bringing in his own writer – Wally Green – to undertake significant rewrites. He also came with his own producer, Lisa Weinstein.

One major change was the re-imagining of Falken. While Parkes and Lasker had envisaged a disabled scientist, Brest feared that a professor in a wheelchair sitting in NORAD would remind too many viewers of Stanley Kubrick’s satirical comedy Dr Strangelove. He had the character transformed into more of a cynical recluse.

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With a director onboard, the next step involved assembling a cast. An extensive search was undertaken for an actor to play the leading role of David Lightman. Before long that search settled upon the 20 year-old Matthew Broderick – at the time best known for performing onstage in Neil Simon’s Eugene trilogy of plays.

‘Matthew was one of millions of kids who’d walked in,’ said Brest. ‘As soon as Lisa Weinstein and I saw him, we were enthralled. He had an enigmatic and sexy impishness, he had charm – he had a lot of riveting qualities in a soft and cuddly package. But when you’re building a $12 million film around an unknown, you get very cautious, so we had open calls in six cities and decided to screen-test the five best actors. And Matthew was at the top of that list.’[7]

At his father’s urging Broderick refused to appear in a screen test, instead submitting a videotape of scenes from the film Max Dugan Returns (which he was in the middle of shooting at the time). It was convincing enough to win him the role. MGM had arcade cabinets of Galaxian and Galaga shipped to Broderick’s home to enable him to master both games for scenes in the movie.

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As David’s teenage love interest Jennifer Mack, Brest cast Ally Sheedy. Like Broderick she was 20 years old at the time of casting. Sheedy had already appeared in a short run of episodes of Hill Street Blues, and had filmed her feature debut: the teen prison drama Bad Boys. WarGames was her first major studio role.

‘I learned a lot on WarGames,’ said Sheedy. ‘It was a huge production filmed on location and on soundstages at MGM. It was like a fairy tale. Lots of equipment, a huge crew. Just fun and wonderful people all around. I didn’t understand the computer angle at all. But Jennifer wasn’t supposed to, so that worked for me.’[8]

 

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Within weeks of principal photography commencing it became clear that the film Martin Brest was directing was not the film that Goldberg or MGM were expecting him to make. After discussing his concerns with the director and failing to reach a compromise, Goldberg received permission from the studio to fire Brest and continue production with another director.

Despite his firing Brest did not stay out of work for long. He was almost immediately signed up by producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson to produce their action comedy Beverly Hills Cop. ‘Thank God he landed on his feet,’ said Dabney Coleman, who Brest had hired for WarGames to play the computer programmer McKittrick. ‘He’s a hell of a director, a sweetheart of a guy, and he did not deserve to get fired.’[9]

With Brest out of the picture, the pressure was on to source a replacement director. Goldberg rapidly zeroed-in on John Badham, who was editing his helicopter-based action film Blue Thunder at the time while negotiating to direct a film adaptation of William Goldman’s The Princess Bride. ‘I was called,’ said Badham, ‘and told that they needed some help quickly. Would I be willing to take a look at it? So, I read the script, could see where they needed help, and said “Sure.”.’[10]

Badham admitted ‘when I took on WarGames I could not boot up the computer! I didn’t know what booting up the computer was – I thought it was maybe when you got sick of it and you kicked it out the door!’[11]

Badham met with Goldberg, who showed him some of the early footage that Brest had shot – including the scene in which David hacks into his high school computer system to change his grades. ‘And I’m looking at this,’ said Badham, ‘and thinking, “What’s wrong here?” Driving home that night, I realized what it was. I stopped the car, found a phone booth, and called Leonard. “I know what the problem is!” I said. “They’re not having any fun!” These kids were treating this as if they’re involved in some dark and evil terrorist conspiracy. If I could change somebody’s grades on the computer, I’d be peeing in my pants with excitement to show it to some girl. And the girl would be excited about it!’[12]

Part of Goldberg’s dissatisfaction with Brest’s take on the film was how serious Brest had made it, and Badham strongly agreed with that assessment. Much of Wally Green’s screenplay was jettisoned and replaced with earlier material by Parkes and Lasker. In particular the character of General Beringer was re-imagined to become less pompous and inflexible.

Negotiations for John Badham to take over directing WarGames took approximately two weeks. He was officially signed onto the film on a Monday, and was shooting on set three days later.

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Badham’s first priority was to rework and improve the film’s shooting script. He said: ‘King Vidor, one of the great old directors, told me that when Victor Fleming came in to take over Gone with the Wind, his first request was that “I need to read everybody’s script.” Apparently, there was a huge stack of scripts. So my first question was, “I need to read all of these scripts.” I looked at Lasker and Parkes’ and I said, “Wait a second, this is really good.” I called them up and said, “Guys, come help me here. We are going to do a lot of work.” They were thrilled to come back in and tweak dialogue and story points that probably had frustrated them earlier for being rewritten.’[13]

One thing Badham was unable to change were the film’s sets, as they were by-and-large already constructed and in some cases already used. The NORAD set, built at an estimated cost of $1 million dollars, was one of the most expensive movie sets ever constructed. Rather than remount scenes unnecessarily, Badham incorporated what he could from Martin Brest’s footage into the final film. At the time of his dismissal Brest had been shooting for about three weeks. Roughly 10 per cent of WarGames’ final theatrical cut was directed by Brest; the remaining 90 per cent was shot by John Badham.

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Despite the change in directors, WarGames completed principal photography after 10 weeks and within its allocated budget of US$13.6 million. In May 1983 WarGames had its world premiere as the closing night film of the Cannes Film Festival.

Scheduling the film’s USA release proved a complex task: the summer of 1983 was packed with high profile movies including Return of the Jedi, Superman III and Octopussy. WarGames was initially set for release on 10 June, but Warner Bros scheduled Superman III for the following week. Fearing that the highly anticipated sequel would dominate cinemas upon release, MGM/UA shifted WarGames back one week to 3 June. This, however, put the film at risk being overwhelmed by Return of the Jedi, which by then would be in its second week of release.

In the end WarGames opened in third place behind Return of the Jedi and Universal’s thriller Psycho II. The following week it was pushed down to fifth place by new arrivals Octopussy and Trading Places, a position it retained in its third week despite the release of Superman III.

Despite the competition WarGames showed remarkable resilience, holding a Top 10 position in American cinemas for nine weeks. Its final domestic gross was just shy of US$80 million dollars, making it a hugely profitable release. It finished up the fifth-most popular movie of 1983, beaten only by Return of the Jedi, Terms of Endearment, Flashdance and Trading Places. Superman III, whose release so concerned MGM/UA staff, was relegated to 12th place.

Even after its theatrical release WarGames continued to exert an influence over American popular culture. In 1984 a US congressman, Dan Glickman, presented several minutes of the film as an example of the risk of computer-based criminal activity. This screening, along with other evidence, prompted congress to pass the 1983 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

Parkes and Lasker continued to show a keen interest in computer hacking, ultimately basing their 1992 thriller Sneakers around similar material.

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WarGames is a quintessential 1980s film. It has rebellious teenage protagonists at its centre, and it presents a certain degree of aspirational fantasy. At the time home computing was becoming increasingly affordable and popular, and seeing David use his computer and a telephone to steal videogames and change his school grades had tremendous appeal for the film’s target audience.

By starring Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy it prefigures the actors’ subsequent roles in films like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club, which more than any other American films helped to define the teenage identity for 1980s audiences.

The threat of nuclear war lurks palpably throughout the film. A war between the USA and the USSR seemed not only likely but inevitable. Nuclear weapons were a regular feature of film and television productions, appearing in such works as Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Miracle Mile and The Day After. They even featured in popular music, including Sting’s hit song “Russians” and Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Two Tribes”. WarGames is an iconic expression of these overwhelming fears.

Most importantly, WarGames is simply a really good all-ages thriller. It works with audiences with a wide range of ages. It is excellently paced. Badham was correct in lightening the film’s tone, turning it from a tense drama into a much more openly crowd-pleasing blockbuster.

Broderick and Sheedy play immensely appealing protagonists, and they are supported by a strong and engaging adult cast – particularly John Wood as Dr Stephen Falken, the character originally developed as a Stephen Hawking analogue but ultimately re-imagined as WOPR’s reclusive creator.

It is easy to overlook a film like WarGames, because to a large extent it does nothing particularly inventive or original. What it does, however, is present a slick and entertaining family thriller that entertains its audience and expresses their social fears and concerns in a safe and hugely enjoyable fashion. There is a lot to be said for films like this: judged not on what it could be, but what it aims to be, WarGames is an absolute winner.

 

[1] Randy and Jean-Marc Lofficier, “Inside WarGames”, Starlog, No 74, September 1983.

[2] Randy and Jean-Marc Lofficier, “Inside WarGames”, Starlog, No 74, September 1983.

[3] Scott Brown, “WarGames: a look back and the film that turned geeks and phreaks into stars”, Wired, 21 July 2008.

[4] Lawrence H. Suid, Guts & Glory: The Making of the American Military Image in Film. University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 2002.

[5] Kathy Chin, “WarGames plays games with the Defense Department’s computer”, InfoWorld, 20 June 1983.

[6] Randy and Jean-Marc Lofficier, “Inside WarGames”, Starlog, No 74, September 1983.

[7] Jesse Kornbluth, “The kid with the million-dollar smile”, New York Magazine, 25 March 1985.

[8] Simon Brew, “The Den of Geek interview: Ally Sheedy”, Den of Geek, 20 May 2008.

[9] Will Harris, “Dabney Coleman on Boardwalk Empire and why WarGames doesn’t make sense”, AV Club (http://www.avclub.com/article/dabney-coleman-on-iboardwalk-empirei-and-why-iwarg-87765)

[10] Randy and Jean-Marc Lofficier, “Inside WarGames”, Starlog, No 74, September 1983.

[11] Martin Anderson, “The Den of Geek interview: John Badham”, Den of Geek, 23 September 2008.

[12] Scott Brown, “WarGames: a look back and the film that turned geeks and phreaks into stars”, Wired, 21 July 2008.

[13] Susan King, “John Badham on moving a film in a good direction”, Los Angeles Times, 10 September 2013.

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