This movie hits the ground running. We see a couple of working joes, checking in at a high-tech, high security installation. We soon discover that these guys are our nation's trigger-pullers, the guys who actually "push the button" to launch a nuclear assault.
They're just passing the time of day. The klaxon sounds: a launch order! One of these two drones turns human when faced with the prospect of killing 20 million people. Surprise! He refuses to launch without phone confirmation. Not part of normal launch procedure, his co-worker pulls his service revolver, demanding the launch button be pushed....
Relax. It's just a test. Turns out that 22% of the operators "failed" in similar circumstances. As a result, McKitrick (played by Dabney Coleman) wants to take the humans "out of the loop". He wants launch control taken over by WOPR (War Operation Plan Response), a single-purpose mainframe that spends all its time playing an endless series of wargames.
General Berrenger, in charge of the installation, hates the idea. But the bureaucrat, who has to present the president with a plan to deal with that 22% failure, is intrigued.
Cut to a video parlor in Seattle. David Lightman (played by a realllly young Matthew Broderick) is running late for school, too involved in his game. He's a classic underachiever, poking fun at the teacher, being served back papers emblazoned with a big F in front of his classmates.
Even when sent to the school office, he dabbles in a bit of high school espionage, ferreting out the school's password for their administrative computer. Rather than endure summer school, he cracks into the school computer and changes not only his grade but that of his potential girl friend, Jennifer (Ally Sheedy).
David wants to crack into a video game publisher's computer. He starts a program designed to work through all the numbers in Sunnyvale, looking for their computer line.
He finds a connection. He asks about what games are stored in the computer. When the list ends with "Global Thermonuclear Warfare", he thinks it's time for some advice. Off he goes to consult with a couple of real professional computer nerds. He is told to find a "back door" into the system, an easy entry password that programmers create for their own convenience. David starts to crack his way in. He forgets everything, stops going to school.
David researches Dr. Falken, the creator of the computer. He finds that the doctor is dead. He also finds the backdoor key, the password that lets him into the WOPR.
David wants to play "Global Thermonuclear Warfare". WOPR suggests a nice game of chess. David insists. The scenario that David creates though, gets patched through to the real-world War Room. The world has 20 minutes to Armageddon. The kids are having a great time, drinking Tabs. SAC is launching bombers, Defcon (defense condition) status is incrementing up to Defcon 5 to Defcon 4. Then, in an alarmingly short time, Defcon 3.
The world is saved by an irate suburban father who demands that David come down and clean up the garbage. He cuts off his computer on his way downstairs. The war room goes black.
David sees the news of a nuclear scare on TV. Realizing what he's done, he tries to get rid of all the evidence. Then WOPR calls him! It's still playing the game and it intends to win. The world has 52 hours.
Although the movie sags a bit in it's second half, it's worth the rental price. This was the first deep exploration of kids with home pc's and modems getting involved in serious cracking. Don't get too comfortable telling yourself that this was just a movie. A real life teenager, doing some electronic wandering of his own, managed to moving a satellite out of its orbit. And, as I was writing this, "2600" magazine released a videotape to the press that shows a Dutch hacker breaking into a United States Army computer system, just to demonstrate how vulnerable we are to this type of intrusion!
Directed by John Badham
MGM/UA Home Video,1983
Here is the TEXT POPUP for Wargames:
Jennifer: You're calling all the numbers in Sunnyvale? That must be really expensive.
David: There are ways around that...
Jeniffer: You can go to jail for that
David: Only if you're over 18!
David: is this a game or is it real?
WOPR: What's the difference?
[The computer comments on "Global Thermonuclear War"]
WOPR: strange game. The only winning move is not to play.
How about a nice game of chess?