For a time in the 1980s, Matthew Broderick was a hero to a new generation. First he was responsible for almost causing a nuclear Armageddon and then became every parent’s nightmare as he encouraged that generation to skip school just for the fun of it. Broderick was biggest, of course, in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” but he does an equally good job of acting in “WarGames.” Three years (and John Hughes) separate the two, but “WarGames” is much closer than you might expect. Its supporting cast is nearly as good and, in the case of Dabney Coleman, the equal of “Ferris’” best supporting actor. So, today I’m reviewing “WarGames.”
(1983; 114 minutes; rated PG; directed by John Badham and starring Matthew Broderick, Ally Sheedy and John Wood)
HOW ABOUT A NICE GAME OF CHESS? OR NOT …
(NOTE: I expanded this review slightly with some reorganization and the updating of links on Aug. 5, 2016.)
Recalling the year 1983, it was the dawn of the personal computer age and “WarGames” looked like science fiction. The film has a computer that could talk and dial phones; another that took over for humans in launching missiles; and by the end everyone knew what a “backdoor” password could accomplish. Gee, no one could ever have imagined what would happen with computers in the next generation! My first home computer at that time had only enough memory that it couldn’t hold some Word documents today.
However, in the end despite it technological Ouija-like predictions, “WarGames” is actually a truly good film and it won three Oscars – one each for sound and cinematography, but especially the third for writing, which means that “WarGames” is a cut above other teen-adventure films … if you can consider this a “teen adventure” film. It certainly is a good motion picture that has adventure, is teen-centric but there more to it than that.
In short, Matthew Broderick, who was in his second film (the first from the same year was “Max Dugan Returns” – click here for my review), is a high IQ teen who is bored with school. He’s an early “hacker” on his computer (it has a disk nearly the size of an LP album) and he gets into trouble at school. Along the way he becomes the interest of a girl (Ally Sheedy as “Jennifer Mack”) and at the same time manages to hack into a mysterious computer – he believes it is a game company’s top secret machine – and begins playing war games.
To get into the computer he has to learn about “backdoor” passwords from his hacker mentors (a couple of twenty-something nerds at the local college) by researching the computer’s real programmer, who is found to be a recluse believing that nuclear war is inevitable. Fast forward and he’s almost started World War III because the U.S. military is tricked by the computer (which is now running war simulations by itself in preparation of doing a real launch of ballistic missiles); he gets caught by the feds; escapes; and hooks up with Sheedy and the original computer genius before saving the world.
Actually, in short form, the story is farfetched, but … not as much as you’d believe. The story is truly well-written: it’s layered; segues nicely; and isn’t one of those “teen-who-knows-better-than-all-adults” fare that is an insult to even the slightest amount of intelligence.
Here’s a rundown of some of the principal cast:
- Golden Globe nominee (not for this one) Broderick plays amiable, intelligent “David Lightman.” He’s the scourge of non-cool teachers and ultimately military bureaucrats. It’s truly amazing how composed, affable and competent he is in only his second film and third acting credit (an episode of TV’s “Lou Grant” was his first in 1981). He has also been “Inspector Gadget” as well as voicing the adult “Simba” in “The Lion King.”
- Sheedy, too, is in her second film here (both also released in 1983, like Broderick), but she had a deeper resume with 13 episodes of various television shows before her movie career took off. Still, Sheedy doesn’t have the room for emotional and other actor’s maneuvering that Broderick enjoys and the part comes off only as workmanlike. Sheedy would go on to be in John Hughes’ “Brat Pack,” do the delightfully bad “Maid to Order” (click here for my review) and more recently was on TV’s excellent series “Psych.”
- The best acting in “WarGames” is done by Dabney Coleman, the Golden Globe winner who plays “John McKittrick.” He’s the computer genius’ follower and really isn’t up to the task after getting his former boss’ computer installed into the military system. Coleman is just so versatile in film that he can do just about anything. He goes from grandstanding to blustering to being made the fool by a boy here and is really good doing it. Coleman was also terrific as the sexist pig boss in “Nine to Five” and was Tom Hanks’ father in “You’ve Got Mail” (click here for my review).
- The neatest supporting role is by three-time Primetime Emmy nominee Barry Corbin, who plays “Gen. Jack Beringer” and who’s constantly on the hot seat with the president about the chaos created by the computer. He’s just terrific, especially when he says he’ll “piss on a sparkplug” if it would help! Good job, Barry. He has also been in “No Country for Old Men” and I liked him in a small role in Clint Eastwood’s “Any Which Way You Can” (click here for my review). He’s best remembered for his work on TV’s “Northern Exposure.”
- John Wood plays reclusive computer scientist “Stephen Falken” (his character was inspired by noted real-life scientist Stephen Hawking – see a further explanation in the cast notes below) and does a solid job, but the character, his motives and outcome are a little too muddled to be truly effective. Still, another actor could have fumbled the role and so give Wood some props for not spoiling the film with a poor effort. He was also in “Ladyhawke” with Broderick.
Moving along, Maury Chakin and Eddie Deezen are “Jim Sting” and “Malvin” and are two of Hollywood first really nerdy computer nerds. Chakin’s character is somewhat more grounded in life than Deezen, but both really need to stay behind closed doors. Chakin was also in “Dances With Wolves” and you’ll remember Deezen best as the nerd being constantly antagonized in “Grease.”
Finally, director Martin Brest was originally hired to do the film, but left after shooting just about 12 minutes of edited film, according to Internet sources. He was replaced by John Badham, who took the film away from the darker road envisioned by Brest. Still a couple of Brest’s scenes did make the final cut.
“WarGames” was the No. 5 film of 1983 with $79.5 million at the box office, according to Box Office Mojo. It was right behind the even-better “Trading Places” ($90.4 million) with Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd (click here for my review) and the No. 1 film was “Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi” with $252.5 million. Other movies from that year I have reviewed include “Easy Money” with Rodney Dangerfield (No. 26 with $29.3 million – click here for my review) and the holiday classic “A Christmas Story” (No. 30 with $19.2 million – click here for my review). I also reviewed these films from 1983 for this blog:
- “Christine” (neat Stephen King sci-fi) – click here for my review
- “Local Hero” (wonderful) – click here for my review)
- “Octopussy” (so-so 007) – click here for my review
Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):
- You couldn’t tell what kind of outstanding career William H. Macy would have if you had managed to recognize him as “NORAD Offier” in an uncredited effort. Macy would go on to critical acclaim in numerous movies including “Jurassic Park III” (click here for my review). I like him best in “Panic” (click here for my review), “The Cooler” and “Thank You for Smoking” (click here for my review).
- Directly from IMDb.com: “The studio had the Galaxian (1979) and Galaga (1981) arcade machines delivered to Matthew Broderick‘s home, where he practiced for two months to prepare for the arcade scene.
- Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “The writers’ main inspiration for the character of Professor Stephen Falken was Cambridge Professor Stephen Hawking. Hawking was originally approached to appear in the movie, but he declined because he didn’t want the producers exploiting his disability.”
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