I am not typically a fan of War Films. Oh, there are some good ones, including From Here to Eternity (1953), Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Red Badge of Courage (1951 & 1974 on TV), Victory (1981), Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), Saving Private Ryan (1998), and Taking Chance (2009). The War Films I enjoy typically do not focus on the killing and brutality of war; they more typically look at war’s effect on those involved and/or raise questions about the nature of war itself.
Given its subject matter and moral stance, the movie WarGames (1983) could be called a War Film. In reality, however, it is more a coming of age film that happens to be about the possibility of war. I was 28 when this film first aired, teaching writing classes in Texas. My college students liked the film, so I watched it as well, and we had several good discussions on its themes. Overall, the move was good, fun in fact—and it had a good message about the futility of war. I had not thought of this movie in years, but I stumbled onto it over the holidays when I was scouring late night channels for something non-Christmasy to watch.
Even though WarGames is 30 years old, it still holds up as a good movie worth watching. When first released, it earned general acclaim as well as commercial success. Roger Ebert labeled it “an amazingly entertaining thriller.” Rotten Tomatoes gave the movie a 92% rating and described it as “part delightfully tense techno-thriller, part refreshingly un-patronizing teen drama, WarGames is one of the more inventive—and genuinely suspenseful—Cold War movies of the 1980s.” During its first five weeks of being shown in American theaters, it earned over 85 million dollars. It won the Academy Scientific and Technical Award, and was nominated for three other Academy Awards: Cinematography, Sound, and Writing Directly for the Screen.
John Badham—already known for directing Saturday Night Fever (1977), Whose Life Is It Anyway? (1981) and Blue Thunder (1983)—directed WarGames and brought his social commentary about war to the big screen. The main stars in the film are Matthew Broderick, Ally Sheedy, John Wood, and Dabney Coleman. The stars play their scenes with a quiet nonchalance, making each new action and the ongoing dialog seem possible, acceptable. As typical in coming of age films, parents and teachers are a bit generic and aloof, but those characterizations do not detract from the basic story line. Although minor military personnel are occasionally seen as predictable and robotic, the main military characters are as well-rounded and thoughtful as the two teenagers and the disgruntled scientist.
The basic ideas within the story—computer games seeming real, exploration of computers and artificial intelligence, computer or theoretical problems and mistakes generating real-world problems—all still seem plausible. The items that date the movie are noticed but can be easily overlooked: drinking Tab, pull tops from soda cans being used to make a phone call from a phone booth, computer links being generated over land lines, and data being saved on floppy disks. A world without cell phones is an oddity, but the story moves on! There is action, suspense, humor, and a little teenage romance to keep everyone happy. As an English teacher, I especially love that the teen resorts to library research to aid his critical thinking and problem solving skills.
The general story line is surprisingly compelling, especially since the audience had to guess that the world would not really be blown up in this movie. The basic narrative builds on a teen’s ability to hack into a computer searching for as-yet-unpublished-but-hyped-in-the-media computer games. From that premise, the action builds slowly, moving quicker and quicker as the pending catastrophe becomes apparent. The kid accidentally engages a military computer to play “Global Thermonuclear War.” Since the computer also runs the military assessment tool WORP (War Operation Planned Response), the computer’s game moves generate real world actions and progress NORAD’s war status successively from DEFCON 5 (peace) to DEFCON 1 (war). By the end of the movie, the audience is sitting on the edge of its seat waiting to see how all this will be resolved as the clock ticks down and the launch codes are decrypted.
The lingering power of the film comes from the questions it raises and themes it explores. These questions and themes stay relevant even today. Three basic thematic threads are interwoven throughout the film. One is the possibility of nuclear war altogether and whether nuclear warheads are a deterrent to an actual war or an accident waiting to happen. Another is the role of computer technology and artificial intelligence in monitoring and analyzing data regarding world powers and possible attacks. The final thread is about the people involved: a scientist who is grieving over the loss of his family and who regrets his role in developing technology used for war, the military personnel who argue over the extent computers should be involved in making decisions, and the teens who are trying to grow up and get pulled into the game of war.
The final message is clear: War is futile. The computer eventually learns this lesson, and real war—along with the game—is aborted. Too bad I am not convinced that all the military and political leaders today understand what the computer eventually learned. In stopping his playing of “Global Thermonuclear War,” Joshua (the computer) says: “Strange game. The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess?”
Do you have a favorite “War Film” or two that you can recommend?
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“The release of atomic energy has not created a new problem. It has merely made more urgent the necessity of solving an existing one.” Albert Einstein
“Mankind must put an end to war before war puts an end to mankind.” John F. Kennedy
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” Dwight D. Eisenhower
“The basic problems facing the world today are not susceptible to a military solution.” John F. Kennedy
“War does not determine who is right—only who is left.” Bertrand Russell
“Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.” Ernest Hemingway
“There was never a good war, or a bad peace.” Benjamin Franklin
“If we don’t end war, war will end us.” H. G. Wells
“Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living.” Omar N. Bradley
“Sometime they’ll give a war and nobody will come.” Carl Sandburg
“War is a defeat for humanity.” Pope John Paul II
“You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake.” Jeannette Rankin
“War may sometimes be a necessary evil. But no matter how necessary, it is always an evil, never a good. We will not learn how to live together in peace by killing each other’s children.” Jimmy Carter
“It’ll be a great day when education gets all the money it wants and the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy bombers.” Author Unknown, quoted in You Said a Mouthful edited by Ronald D. Fuchs
“I dream of giving birth to a child who will ask, ‘Mother, what was war?’” Eve Merriam
“The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking. . . . The solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.” Albert Einstein
“’There are no atheists in foxholes’ isn’t an argument against atheism, it’s an argument against foxholes.” James Morrow
“Sometimes I think it should be a rule of war that you have to see somebody up close and get to know him before you can shoot him.” M*A*S*H, Colonel Potter