4 May 2004 | slokes
Shall We Play A Game?
Cyberthrillers may not have started with "WarGames," but it was here the form achieved an early peak. As more filmmakers follow its example of portraying a high-tech faceoff between man and machine, "WarGames" remains a standard to be measured against. While it's not a film classic, it's a very, very good popcorn thriller of uncommon craft, charm, and humanity.
Seattle high schooler David Lightman (Matthew Broderick) has only a few hours to undo what he thought was a sneak preview of an upcoming computer game but what instead got him tinkering with the U.S. Air Force's WOPR (War Operation Planned Response) computer system in such a way as to trigger a countdown to World War III. The FBI thinks he's a Soviet spy, while classmate Jennifer Mack (Ally Sheedy) is wondering if this isn't all really about a rejiggered biology grade.
Broderick is solid, and Sheedy even better, but what really sells this film is everything else. Start with the excellent supporting performances. John Wood as a reclusive professor and Barry Corbin as a tobacco-chewing general get much of the kudos, and rightly, but there's a whole deep bench of quality work beyond that, like Kent Williams as a curt White House advisor, William Bogert and Susan Davis as David's out-of-it parents, Alan Blumenfeld as the swaggering bully of a biology teacher, and Juanin Clay as a beautiful but underappreciated assistant (even by herself as she uses her own mouth as an ashcan for her boss's discarded gum.) You know the casting people behind this movie were on the ball when the opening sequence features two very recognizable faces, those of Michael Madsen and John Spencer, in what were film debuts for both.
That sequence with Madsen and Spencer as missile men point up another quality of "WarGames," the way the movie works in terms of setting up expectations and developing pace. The harrowing business between the two of them is mercilessly presented ("Turn your key, sir!") and then effectively abandoned so as to work in the central storyline, the replacement of these men with computers. We get a macro-view where Dabney Coleman as a tunnel-visioned warroom executive effectively makes the case for "taking the men out of the loop" and then zoom back into what seems a totally unrelated story, that of slacker teen David Lightman and his high school travails.
The film could have just started with Lightman, and worked its way out to the business with the WOPR. But the early peek behind the curtain is a clever way of raising the stakes with the audience before the protagonist realizes what's up.
The set design, cinematography, lighting, and editing all work wonders as well. The NORAD warroom is really a character onto itself, the ultimate source of reality in this film (and better for my money than the warroom in `Dr. Strangelove,' an obvious inspiration.) The way the cameras dart around from terminal to terminal as uniformed USAF technicians follow the progress of an apparent Soviet attack, lighting onto one of them just before he or she relays an important piece of information, is highly addictive and entertaining.
There's some sloppiness in the movie. Madsen and Spencer's talk about this great pot Spencer's character has scored strains credulity in the high-security setting they are in, and its blindingly obvious that the two men we see exiting a helicopter and entering a jeep during the credits are not the same two men getting out of the jeep moments later. The musical score is terrible, except for the elegiac tune at the end by which time it's too late. And there's no real examination of the morality of Lightman's serial lawbreaking.
But this is a funny, exciting, consciousness-raising movie that is as entertaining now with the Cold War more than a decade behind us as it was all those years ago. For all the technical innovation on display, it's ironically appropriate we remember it for showing us how to butter an ear of corn, because it's the human side of the equation `WarGames' keeps in its sights at all times.
[The DVD features a terrific, candid commentary from director John Badham and writers Lawrence Lasker and Walter Parkes that gives one a real appreciation for the value of creative license as well as factual diligence in making a film of this kind work.]