Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Playing WarGames

"WarGames" had a lot more impact when it was released 30 years ago today than it has now.

After all, the Cold War mentality was still strong in 1983. The Soviet Union hadn't collapsed, and the Reagan administration had made winning the Cold War its top foreign policy priority.

Thus, in the late spring and early summer of 1983, movie audiences were understandably unnerved by the story "WarGames" had to tell.

Even though the Cold War ended within 10 years, "WarGames" offered a glimpse into a future that, in hindsight and for several reasons, may be even more troubling. Matthew Broderick, the lead character, had an obsession with computers and video games that was rare in the early 1980s but might be regarded as mainstream today.

About six months ago, when the shootings in the Connecticut elementary school occurred, there was general angst about the fact that the shooter had devoted much of his spare time to violent video games, a trait that is not uncommon with many young men of his age group.

In "WarGames," Broderick played a similar young man, but the havoc he wreaked in the fictional story went far beyond a single classroom or school. He had a home computer at a time when that was still a rarity in most homes, and he used it to tap into his school's computer to do things like alter academic records for himself and his love interest (played by Ally Sheedy).

He also used his computer to play the most challenging video games of that time. In pursuit of that form of pleasure, he unknowingly hacked into the Pentagon's computer system and activated a nuclear war simulation, thinking that it was merely a very realistic computer game.

Which it was — so realistic that the computer didn't know it wasn't real.

In hindsight, I suppose, "WarGames" was a bit of a gamble as far as the cast was concerned. Broderick has been in some successful films in his career, but "WarGames" was the very beginning of that career.

Sheedy, it often seems, grew up in front of the movie camera. And, in fact, she did. She has been involved in acting, in one form or another, since she was a teenager.

But "WarGames" was practically her first big–screen movie. Practically. It almost certainly was her most extensive role to date. More extensive screen time came with later films, like "The Breakfast Club" and "St. Elmo's Fire," but, for many moviegoers, this was their first real look at the young actress.

And there was a lot to like. Admittedly pleasing to the eye with her chestnut hair and athletic build, Sheedy, it turned out, was a pretty good actress, too — and that certainly contributed to the quality of the story.

But the real attraction to "WarGames" was the public's uneasiness with computers. Audiences in 1983 weren't as sophisticated as they are in 2013. The public's mindset probably was unchanged since the 1950s — when people heard the word computer in 1983, they still thought of some massive mechanical monstrosity (presumably like the one that virtually filled a room in 1957's "Desk Set") that was beyond their comprehension.

The public's general ignorance about computers made the story of an accidental nuclear war more plausible than anything that had been made in 20 years. In many ways, it was a more innocent time, a time when cable TV was still in its infancy and the commercial internet was still in the future.

Because of the amazing advances we have witnessed in the last 30 years, I doubt that the story in "WarGames" would be taken seriously today. A whole generation of Americans has grown up playing computer games and using tech–savvy lingo, and most of those folks would probably be unimpressed by a computer that took so long to learn the simple lesson of Tic–Tac–Toe.

But there is little doubt that it was highly effective in 1983.