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Sunday, July 20, 2014
Written by Lawrence Lasker & Walter F. Parkes
Directed by John Badham
Matthew Broderick: David Lightman
Ally Sheedy: Jennifer Mack
Dabney Coleman: Dr. John McKittrick
John Wood: Dr. Stephen Falken
Barry Corbin: General Beringer
With Maury Chaykin and Eddie Deezen as Jim Sting and Malvin, a pair of hackers
I can't believe this movie is thirty-one years old. I remember catching it in the theater and having my shaky and incomplete understanding of global politics irretrievably changed. In fact, I still feel the same way now that I did when I was eight years old and watching the dominoes fall in the story. I've just read more about the US military's nuclear program since then, and learned that I've got more reasons to feel the way I did. It's nice to know I was right all along.
The film starts with an absolutely riveting sequence--two Air Force officers (one of them a shockingly young Michael Madsen) start their 24-hour-long session in a missile command bunker. They've only been on duty a minute or two when a launch order comes through. The pair go through the various steps that it takes to authenticate the orders, arm the missiles, set the targets for the nuclear weapons and go within five seconds of launching the missiles when the older officer refuses to turn the key. It turns out that he's unwilling to use an atomic weapon without being absolutely certain that World War III has broken out and there's no communication with the world outside his bunker. The younger officer draws his sidearm and commands the older one to turn his key or get shot; it's a moment of homicidal insanity made possible by a series of logical steps followed by two obedient soldiers. It's Dr. Strangelove played straight and it's utterly horrifying to consider an obedient airman threatening to murder a superior officer for not preparing to incinerate twenty million civilians without warning. And then, without resolving the scene, we get the opening credits (in a blocky computer font that probably looked really advanced in 1983) over footage of the NORAD command center that oversees the American nuclear weapons facilities.
And in the facility? A couple of extremely high-ranking Air Force officers and McKittrick, the civilian overseeing the command bunker; they're being hassled by a Presidential envoy who wants to know why the officers from the pre-credits sequence didn't launch the missiles when the time came to turn their keys. It turns out that it was a drill (although the two officers with their fingers on the button didn't know that), and that two out of nine launch drills end with the missile commanders refusing to launch. Since the only point to America having those nuclear weapons is the total extermination of life on Earth once a nuclear war starts, it makes sense (for a given value of "sense") that the officers would need to turn their keys every single time. (McKittrick has a particularly horrible turn of phrase when he says some of the officers "just aren't up to" the responsibility of killing everyone in the Soviet bloc).
McKittrick believes that no plan and no amount of training and drilling can ever overcome the randomness inherent in the human mind, and that by making a system with no human input it would be possible to launch the missiles ten times out of ten; it's ghastly, but he's got a point. If the geopolitical situation ever deteriorated to the point where nuclear war was actually happening, then those missiles need to be launched. They serve no purpose whatsoever if they're dormant in a silo when the balloon goes up. And the best guess from everyone involved is that there would be a six minute gap between a Soviet submarine launch and the first detonation on American soil. Much of the system is already automated (and McKittrick and the Air Force personnel both expect that the pre-existing nuclear battle plans will be carried out rather than having to improvise something on the fly). McKittrick wants to automate the launches completely and avoid the human element when carrying out a nuclear attack--not because someone might set off a nuke in a fit of pique, but because they might not. His plan is to use a supercomputer called W.O.P.R. (War Operation Plan Response); it's going to run continual simulations of nuclear combat between America and the USSR, using a primitive artificial intelligence to learn from each iteration of World War III simulations and plan more effective plans bit by bit. Other than the lights that are supposed to suggest eyes and a mouth on one of the computer's readouts, W.O.P.R. looks totally boss and is one of the better pieces of science-fiction production design that you're going to see out of the eighties. Just try not to look at the goofy computer clown face when it's in shot.
McKittrick's a pretty persuasive talker, and the Presidential advisor says he'll recommend computerized control of the American nuclear arsenal, a great idea that could never possibly go wrong.
The rest of the movie tells the story of how that idea goes wrong.
A bright but bored high school student in Seattle, David Lightman, is blowing off school to play Galaga. He didn't think Tony Stark would notice, but he did. (Also, kudos to Matthew Broderick for doing his own video game playing; at least in 1983, he was pretty damn good at Galaga.) The soundtrack is playing the kind of song you wind up with when Buckner and Garcia wanted too much money for "Pac Man Fever"; David flees the soundtrack and goes to school just in time to find out he got an F on a biology test. He sasses the teacher (who, to be fair, is coming across as kind of an asshole) and gets booted out of class to discuss his attitude problem with a student counselor. While he's waiting to get lectured, he takes a peek at the probably-not-as-secure-as-the-school-administrators-think-it-is password list for the central grade computer and notes the one that's currently in use.
After his attitude adjustment session, David gets a moped ride home from one of his classmates, Jennifer Mack (who indirectly got him in trouble in Biology by finding his mockery of the teacher incredibly amusing). They talk about flunking the test and Jennifer says she'll see him in summer school. He says he won't have to make up the class, and offers to show her how he'll be avoiding it. It turns out that he's got a massive desktop PC (with a futuristic-for-the-time 8" floppy drive and a modem structured like a telephone cradle). He demonstrates his mad skills (which mostly consist of knowing a hell of a lot more about manipulating the school's computer system than they would assume any high school student would) and gives himself a C in the course. He offers to change Jennifer's grade as well, but she demands that he switches the C back to an F, preferring makeup classes to the possibility of getting caught changing the grades.
Later, David sees an ad promising all kinds of wonderful games from a company in California called Protovision; he sets his kitbashed system up to dial every number in Sunnyvale in order to find another modem line. He assumes that there will only be one modem line in Sunnyvale and at the other end of that line is the mainframe at Protovision; if he's smart enough he can figure out how to play the new Christmas releases a couple of months early. Jennifer tracks him down at the Galaga machine and asks if he can alter her biology grade; they're back at the Light house shortly thereafter and David says he already gave her an A in the course because he figured she'd want him to do that. There's some nice getting-to-know-someone chemistry in this scene, and it's a rough parallel to the Air Force discussions about keeping humans out of the decision loop at NORAD. There's a brief almost-argument between Jennifer and David over whether or not he should have changed her grade without telling her (even though she wants him to do it now), and then she's angry when he says at first that she got a D so at least she's passing the class. There's a lot of ethical issues around "I'm mad at you for giving me a lower grade than I wanted when you were illegally breaking into the school's computer system" that I'm not even remotely qualified to unpack. But it is a very human discussion to have.
David shows off his ability to play around in other systems while combing through the half-dozen modem numbers he dug up through the laborious modem-dialing program (while trying to impress Jennifer he's able to make a ticket reservation for a Pan Am flight to Paris, but not to actually create the ticket out of digital thin air). An unidentified system has a list of simulation games on it ranging from checkers to something called "Global Thermonuclear War". David thinks he's hit the jackpot and that he'll be able to goof around on Protovision's system playing things early and free. Which is terrible news, because he's actually called up a line connected to W.O.P.R. and what he assumes are a list of amusements are actually modules inside the wargaming machine meant to simulate various aspects of armed conflict on a nationwide level. And something called "Falken's Maze", which I assume David assumes is full of orcs and kobolds.
The teens stop by a computer science lab at some kind of university building (I think), to talk to Jim and Malvin, a pair of original issue hackers that hopefully will give him advice on how to log into the mainframe he's found and play some computer games. Jim's a teddy-bear shaped former hippie and Malvin is played by Eddie Deezen at his Deeziest. They may be dorks (scratch "may" for Malvin), but they're incredibly smart and have an encylopedic knowledge of computer network security. They tell David (and the audience) about a back door password; a simple password that a network designer adds in and keeps private so that he can always get back in if he has to or wants to. In 1983, that was nowhere near common knowledge, so good on the screenwriters for getting this information across entertainingly. Also, Ally Sheedy has a couple of great reaction shots listening to the nerdfest. Malvin even knows enough about his field to recognize "Falken's Maze". It's not a dungeon crawl; it's a reference to creating artificial intelligence and teaching a computer to learn from past "experiences".
The Falken that the program refers to is Dr. Stephen Falken; he's a strategic theorist and super-genius computer programmer with an interest in Cold War political posturing (an article written by Falken that David looks up on microfilm is about bluffing with WMDs and credits John McKittrick as a cowriter). David spends several days or possibly even weeks trying every word he can think of related to Falken's work and interests and fails to guess the back door password every time. It turns out he's been blowing off school to do this for an entire week, which is actually pretty accurate for a socially maladjusted serial-obsessive nerd with his hooks stuck in a new interest. Jennifer stops by the Lightman house to see if he's sick (nope--just not going to school) and while looking through the pile of research she gives David the final clue he needs to guess the password--Falken's wife and son died in a car accident, and it turns out his son's name--Joshua--is the password he installed to get back into the W.O.P.R. system if he wanted to or had to. And now David, a bright kid who doesn't necessarily think things through, has figured out how to talk to a military supercomputer that created to do nothing but consider the most effective ways to exterminate the human race all day.
David's elated that he's able to converse with the primitive AI, and even happier when it asks him if he wants to play a game. To the extent that a bundle of code can, the W.O.P.R. appears to have missed Falken--who he thinks David is, for having logged in with Falken's old backdoor password--and might even appreciate the novelty of playing something other than war simulations. Unfortunately for the machine, David only has eyes for Global Thermonuclear War. He and Jennifer have a great deal of fun selecting targets for a nuclear strike, because it's all just a game and there won't be any actual consequences. They even select Seattle as the second target, incinerating their own backyard because why not?
Back at NORAD, the big board lights up with launch warnings and everyone at the facility springs into action (and the much older Tim is glad to hear that the first protocol when there's a launch notice is to check for malfunctioning software or hardware; nice to see that atomic warfare isn't the default response at NORAD). The next reponses include getting bombers and missiles ready to attack the Soviet bloc, though, and everyone goes about their business efficiently to start setting that up. Among the "hey, that guy" character actors on the NORAD set: the hotel manager from Ghostbusters and the office boss from Herman's Head. Everyone at the command center is baffled when the inbound missiles vanish from their displays. One of the techies on the computer staff runs in to tell everyone that it's some sort of unpredictable mishap, and that an outside person fed a training simulation into W.O.P.R., which misinterpreted the war game as an actual attack. General Beringer is less than amused by this turn of events. In the manner of phone traces in movies throughout all of cinema history, the NORAD equipment didn't have enough time to complete the trace but they do know whoever it was that got in touch with W.O.P.R. is in or near Seattle.
The next day, the evening news has a report about a computer malfunction that made NORAD briefly think America was under nuclear attack; Jennifer calls David up to collectively freak out about what they did while playing what they thought was just some kind of advanced computer game (and actually was, now that I think about it, but not one made by Introvision to separate nerds of the 80s from their dollars). Jennifer consoles David by pointing out that NORAD would have already found him if they were going to and the young hacker goes into evidence-destroying mode. He figures everything's going to be all right until his phone rings and it's W.O.P.R. wanting to continue the game with Falken; David tries to tell the computer he isn't the professor but is completely ignored. He hangs up on the machine but it just keeps calling back, so David unplugs the phone and tries to keep his heart rate under 200 or so.
Whether or not he accomplishes that after making it impossible for W.O.P.R. to call him that night, it sure as hell doesn't work the next day when the FBI arrests him outside a convenience store and he gets bundled into a nondescript van and transferred to NORAD headquarters for extensive questioning. As he's being ferried to the command center, McKittrick, Beringer and a bunch of government officials are debating whether or not a high schooler could have accidentally gotten in touch with their supercomputer while looking for a toy company. It certainly doesn't look good that he used a password so obscure that the current programming team didn't even know it was in the system, and he fits the psychological profile of someone that the Soviets could easily recruit to work against America (although I'm willing to bet that the official FBI profile would be broad enough to include everyone but the profilers, one way or another).
McKittrick decides to talk to David man-to-terrified-and-out-of-his-depth-teenager to determine what the hell is going on with the security breach and instantly refuses to believe that the AI (which David calls "Joshua", since it's Falken's creation) could have called anyone. And there's some damning circumstantial evidence from David's earlier hacking that makes it look like he was planning to escape to Paris with an accomplice. And like all good authority figures in movies, McKittrick already has his mind made up about David's situation and isn't willing to listen to the rather unbelievable truth when David tries to tell it to him.
Things escalate from here--the Soviets' response to the American response to the fictitous alert means that both superpowers are edgy and don't want to back down until the other one does, and that means that McKittrick gets called back to his duties on the command center floor; when he's alone in the room David logs back on to the system (using the "Joshua" backdoor login) and finds that W.O.P.R. is planning to run the "game" in real time, with an estimate of 72 million Americans dead in the first wave of missile attacks. There's a ticking timer on the game and McKittrick's secretary calls in a goon squad when she sees David on the terminal in her boss's office. Nobody's particularly willing to listen to David in terrified nonsensical ranting mode and he gets locked up to cool his heels until he can be shipped off to Denver and charged with espionage.
David figures out how to pick the electronic lock on the infirmary (which shows the audience that he's actually really clever, and would certainly convince the FBI and NORAD staff that he's a highly trained and dangerous espionage agent) and manages to avoid detection long enough to get out of the facility with the tour group that's been a mild headache for all the officials during this sequence. Bonus points to the movie for showing more than a little "social engineering"--hackers and phone preakers used people's expectations as levers to manipulate them and do what they wanted to do all the time and it's cool to see David getting out of situations because he knows how to tell people what they want to hear rather than just punch someone out and run away.
David makes a coinless call from a pay phone and asks Jennifer to buy him a plane ticket so he can get out of Colorado and to Oregon in an effort to find Falken (who is not nearly as dead as the Department of Defense wanted anyone to believe) and get him to convince W.O.P.R. to stop playing its "game" before there are real consequences that nobody will be able to take back. They find Falken (who is goofing around with a pteranodon-shaped glider on his land), who greets them with "You're on my land and I didn't invite you", and then a series of commands that sound like something out of an Infocom game that tell them how to leave his property. David uses the magic word "Joshua" and Falken freezes in his tracks.
Back at NORAD command, General Berlinger is trying to make sense of the information in front of him on the display board; sending out fighter jets to get a look at the Soviet bombers on the radar screen means that he has to trust either his eyes (looking at the display in the underground bunker) or his ears (when the fighter pilots tell him they can't find anything on their radar screens and can see for forty miles in every direction and can't see any Soviet aircraft). Tension remains high but the people in charge are at least aware that things aren't exactly what they seem to be.
Falken tries to console Jennifer and David by telling them that extinction is just part of the cycle of life (showing some boss stop-motion dinosaur movie footage on his home projector) and that humanity had its chance. Nature will start over with some other animal and life will continue even if the human race manages to destroy itself. The teens take this extraordinarily badly and don't feel any better when Falken informs them that his house is three miles from a primary nuclear target, chosen so that he'll be "spared the horror of survival" in the event of World War III. David and Jennifer leave his house and try looking for a boat in order to get off the island Falken lives on. They don't find one ("What kind of an asshole lives on an island and doesn't own a boat?") and commiserate about the existential horror of knowing that everything they love will be going up in a nuclear fireball tomorrow morning.
Their conversation and kiss is interrupted by a helicopter arriving--they think it's the military but it turns out to be Falken's personal whirlybird. He takes them to NORAD just in time to get sealed up inside; the simulation has proceeded to the point where the "Soviet" missiles are on their way towards targets in America and the facility is at DefCon 1. Falken tries to run Beringer--who has been a belligerent asshole towards all the civilians he's talked to for the entire movie--through basic game theory so he understands that the Soviets aren't going to launch an attack that would result in retaliatory devastation out of nowhere. Beringer listens to reason and refuses to launch, even though the screens at the command center are telling him that the country has been utterly devastated. A conference call with the officers in charge of three Air Force bases that were the first to be "hit" confirms that none of the data on the huge display screens is accurate. Everyone in the bunker cheers and rejoices, having been as close as possible to the end of everything and seeing that it didn't happen.
Until W.O.P.R. takes control of the American launch systems for the end of the "game", preparing to play out the simulation with real weapons--and it's not letting any of the NORAD personnel log on to the system to stop the launches. The last ten minutes of the film are as armrest-clutching riveting as the beginning of the film, with Falken having to figure out a way to teach "Joshua" how to give up on a game. Which is something he'd never been able to get the machine intelligence to do before; he was able to program it to understand wins and losses and even stalemates, but never futility. If the machine doesn't learn that some games aren't worth playing before it cracks the launch code, it's all over for humanity. McKittrick has indeed designed a system that will prevent human beings from stopping a nuclear missile launch, but it turns out that the ability for a person to say "no" when confronted with mass murder on a literally unthinkable scale is vitally important and if Joshua doesn't learn that there's no way to win "Global Thermonuclear War" in the next couple of minutes, he's going to learn it for the first and final time when the missiles go up.
If I'd really understood the geopolitical situation in 1983 when I saw this movie, I would have been a gibbering, semi-catatonic wreck after seeing the film. Looking at the systems put in place to end human life on Earth turns you into a Lovecraft protagonist (Charles Stross wrote the bleak masterpiece "A Colder War" after realizing how much growing up in the UK during the Reagan-Thatcher years made him realize that he was at the mercy of powers he could never bargain with or understand, capable of exterminating his life in an instant without realizing or caring).
The missiles existed in order to never be used, except that if they were ever used, they'd need to be launched, so only a dispassionate system could be trusted to actually kill all of humanity if it ever came to that. But both sides (supposedly) knew this, and built more missiles in order to keep from blinking when staring into the abyss and planning more and better ways to wipe out their political rivals at the cost of their own existence. Because once you have a gun pointed at your enemy's head and they have one pointed at yours, the riskiest move imaginable is to point the gun somewhere else.
Another thing to remember, when watching this film: No enemy force ever used a nuclear weapon against America, but every test to make the missiles more accurate, more powerful, and capable of killing more people was the USA bombing itself. What's the point of being proud of avoiding a Soviet attack if you've used nuclear weapons on your own soil, exposed your own troops to fallout, and given cancer to tens of thousands of unlucky people living downwind of your tests? For decades, this is what American leaders did to American people. This is the "victory" from the Cold War--that our enemies never irradiated us, but the people we put in charge did, over and over and over again.
"The only winning move is not to play", indeed.