With few exceptions, the major Hollywood movie studios have ignored the ongoing peril of nuclear weapons since the end of the Cold War. While moviemakers can generally rely on stories about zombies, mutants and superheroes to draw today’s crowds, films that spark genuine fear for the survival of our nation and world have become rare.
Three decades ago, however, several films depicting either circumstances leading up to a Third World War, or dire post-cataclysmic worlds, were spurring wide debate. If the late 1950s and early 1960s were the first golden age of nuclear-menace movies, including “On the Beach,” “Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” “Fail-Safe,” and “Seven Days in May,” 1983 and 1984 can be seen as the second such age – and, so far, the last.
Thirty years ago, international events clearly were exacerbating the worries of people already concerned about U.S.-Soviet relations. The year 1982 had seen NATO moving ahead with plans to place new mid-range nuclear missiles in Europe. Secretary of State Alexander Haig was talking freely about “levels” of nuclear war, how such wars might be “limited,” and whether the U.S. could someday explode a nuclear bomb as a warning to scare Russian leaders during a crisis. President Ronald Reagan’s “defense modernization program” was a euphemism for a vast arms build-up seeking to add 17,000 warheads to the 25,000 that the U.S. already had. The government also had begun planning to pump much more funding into civil defense shelters.
As tensions between the U.S. and the USSR persisted, the nuclear freeze movement hit its full stride. Protests and state and local referenda on the issue abounded. In one event, some 500,000 people gathered in New York’s Central Park in June 1982 to demand the bilateral freeze that Reagan fervently opposed.
In theaters and on TV, anxiety over nuclear war was reflected in acclaimed movies such as “Threads” in Great Britain and “Testament” in the U.S. – both stark depictions of people suffering and dying amid nuclear fallout. The movie that reached the greatest audience was “The Day After,” a 1983 ABC-TV production watched by a record 100 million people. The program dramatized the nuclear destruction of Lawrence, Kan., and Kansas City, Mo., and shocked and depressed many – including Reagan, who supposedly was profoundly troubled by it.
But it’s the 1983 nuclear action-adventure movie “WarGames” that probably is remembered most today as a memorable artifact of that era. The film presents the story of David Lightman (Matthew Broderick), a high school student, computer prodigy and hacker who uses a dial-up modem to play what he thinks is a computer game – only to reach a top-secret system at the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). The intrusion is accidental but triggers a domino effect that accelerates toward world war, as government computer experts and generals find themselves helpless to halt the “game” that NORAD’s overzealous computer has initiated on Lightman’s suggestion.
The movie was a huge, and perhaps unexpected, summer hit, grossing $79.6 million at the box office. It earned high praise from most critics and received three Oscar nominations. It also led to new media attention to whether accidental nuclear war was more likely in a new age of easy, widespread availability of computers. In addition, for the first time for the young audiences of the ’80s, “WarGames” made vivid the implications of U.S. nuclear missiles being on high-alert: the impossibly brief amount of time that the White House, and military, have to decide if signs of an enemy attack are real or a mistake.
To mark the 30th-anniversary year of “WarGames,” NAPF talked to John Badham, the film’s director. Badham (also known for his direction of the 1977 iconic disco movie “Saturday Night Fever”), was brought in by MGM/United Artists early in the film’s production to replace another director. Badham’s decision to mix the right amounts of humor, action and teen romance into the film is now credited with making it a smash hit – without sacrificing a serious moral about the futility of war and a nightmarish quality of dread that persists throughout.
The following is an edited version of the conversation.
KAZEL: I’ve been watching nuclear-war-related movies from the early '60s and late '50s, and the '80s, and it seems a lot of the directors and producers who did those projects went into them with strong political views about the arms race. I know that Stanley Kubrick was deeply troubled about nuclear war, and Sidney Lumet was worried about it – and so were several of the actors who did [Lumet’s] Fail-Safe. Do you remember having any strong feelings about the topic before you were asked to direct WarGames?
BADHAM: It was a time, going of course back to the middle 1940s, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that even as a real youngster you became aware of the power of nuclear weapons and the frightening danger of them. In my grammar school, and this is late 1940s, we were having nuclear-war drills, as silly as they were – duck-and-cover and all that. It was very much on our minds. It was an environment setting up for the McCarthy business in the 1950s and that kind of paranoia. It’s always interesting that it takes a while for those kinds of worries to emerge in the popular media, in the form of Strangelove and Fail-Safe. Were they not almost the same year?
KAZEL: Yes, Fail-Safe came out just a few months after Strangelove [in 1964].
BADHAM: Right. Strangelove was such a definitive piece, but then along comes Lumet with a much darker take on it, in a way, because it was so serious. There was no laughing allowed (laughs) in the theater for Fail-Safe.
KAZEL: I’ve read your stepfather retired as a brigadier general in the Air Force. He served in both World War I and II?
BADHAM: He learned to fly in WWI.
KAZEL: Did you also serve in the military?
BADHAM: I did. I was in the Air Force from 1964 to 1970, some active duty and some National Guard – California National Guard.
KAZEL: Did you actually fly?
BADHAM: No, I was a medic. My father was all for me going to Officer Candidate School, and so on. But I had other thoughts – directing theater and directing movies. I think for a brief while I disappointed him until he started coming to my sets and saying, “Well, I guess the kid may survive after all.”
KAZEL: So, you’ve said before that Dr. Strangelove is one of your favorite movies. I was wondering what made it such a great film to you, and also what you thought of Kubrick’s decision to make it a very funny, black comedy instead of his original idea to do it as a serious suspense film.
BADHAM: Was that his original idea?
KAZEL: Yes, then he rewrote the script.
BADHAM: Well, once you got involved in the casting of Peter Sellers, that starts to twist it right there. You know, it [farce] is almost unavoidable. But, it certainly happens with films. My friend, the late Frank Pierson, who wrote the screenplay for Cat Ballou, said that what he was given to rewrite was a very serious piece. A serious Western. He kept going to the producers and saying, “Guys, it keeps coming out funny. I don’t know what to tell you.” Maybe they [the writers of Dr. Strangelove] started to think it was more accessible and less grim if they were to approach it in this way – that they would get the message across clearly without totally alienating an audience. As interesting as Fail-Safe is, it’s a tough one to take.
KAZEL: You have said before that you really disliked Fail-Safe, actually.
BADHAM: The reality of it is so heavy. It’s hard to enjoy that movie. (Laughs.) I don’t dislike it -- you know, Sidney Lumet doesn’t do anything that you can really dislike. But the tone of it can sometimes be a downer.
KAZEL: Leonard Goldberg [producer of WarGames] said the idea, the goal of WarGames from the start was just to create entertainment. In fact, as you know, when the script was first developed, it wasn’t even about nuclear war. It was just about a kid who was a genius. I think the title was “The Genius.”
BADHAM: That’s right.
KAZEL: When you were making the film, did you have any political goals in mind?
BADHAM: I’m one of those people who believe you tell the story, not the message. The old Broadway saying is, if you want to send a message, use Western Union. Now, I guess you could tweet it. (Laughs.) Walter Kerr, the drama critic for the Times, used to say, “They sold the play for a pot of message” – you know, a funny old Biblical reference. So, the message comes out of the subject matter. In this particular case, we’re talking about a very strong character of a little boy who starts in playfully, playing [computer] games and gets in way over his head. Out of it…you begin to see the other terrifying possibilities as we continue to automate our [military] system.
But a strong story about a character is what caught my attention, and that led you to something else entirely – which was made very accessible by the playfulness of this little boy and the almost black-comic situation he found himself in. There’s certainly a lot of influence from Dr. Strangelove coming to me, though I tried not to think about it while I was doing WarGames because that was not a place to go. But certainly the humor that’s sprinkled liberally throughout comes from the perception that as frightening as this is, it’s also kind of funny.
[Under the original director] they were treating it, in every scene I saw, in the tone of Fail-Safe. The actors, the lighting, the direction – it was extremely dark. The Matthew Broderick character was seen as a dark, rebellious kid lurking up in his room doing God-knows-what. I said to Leonard [Goldberg], if I could do that in high school – show a girl how I could change her grade [using a home computer], I would be peeing in my pants with excitement. I mean, good God, could you imagine how terrific that would be? You’d feel just on top of the world.
I took the script and changed the character of The General [commander of NORAD] to someone who had a great, funny Southern sense of humor, based a lot on my father.
KAZEL: To me, it seems a strong difference between what you did, and what Kubrick did, is you didn’t want to make the military or the government officials seem like idiots or clowns, or crazy. Some of the adults in your movie were eccentric or strange, but they were very earnestly trying to prevent World War III – something that the kid had started.
BADHAM: I think it’s easy to kind of write off the danger when you’re looking at people who are being portrayed as idiots. As much as I love Peter Sellers’ portrayal of the crazy scientist in the wheelchair with the arm that won’t behave, you have a tendency to write them off. A lot of what WarGames is talking about is technology taking over on us, and even though we may have good intentions and are trying to do our best, it could bulldoze us.
Of course we see evidence of this all the time. Larry Lasker and Walter Parkes, the screenwriters, and I, started talking back in those early days about the possibilities of cyber war, and what could happen if what was then innocent hacking became really serious stuff. Of course, that’s what we’re watching now. I don’t think we were prescient. I just think we were letting our imaginations say, “Where could this go to?”
KAZEL: Even though the movie seems dated in some ways, as you’re saying, in other ways -- the threat of cyber warfare and the idea that unauthorized people could tap into a nuclear defense system -- seems even more possible now than in the ‘80s.
BADHAM: Right. We’re seeing it. Our government’s going in and messing with Iran’s system. The Chinese government is coming in and tapping the New York Times’ addresses. It is sort of spooky. We’re in that age. Information is just flying everywhere, with nobody able to control it the way they’d like to control it.
KAZEL: Do you think that your film appeals to audiences of today? Can young people take something away from it?
BADHAM: Well, yes. It’s still very appealing to young film watchers because of the characters they can relate to. Once they get past the ancient, dated [home computer] equipment…it’s still fun for them to relate to it. At the end, I think, as you see what could catastrophically go wrong, it’s as clear as a bell.
KAZEL: The nuclear freeze movement was reaching its height right around the time that the movie came out. Do you think the context of what was happening in the world had a lot to do with drawing people to see WarGames, or would it have been popular with a youthful audience regardless of the events of the time?
BADHAM: I think the concept was just appealing. We’re talking about a 16-year-old boy who suddenly breaks into NORAD and almost starts [a war]? And, a very appealing young character. You know, the movie was in the Top 10 of the year, I think, and yet there’s not a star in it. Dabney Coleman was our big name. (Laughs.) And advertising was not necessarily great. There was just something about the package that seemed like this would be fun. People don’t really want to go to the theater to be lectured to, or frightened in a real way. They like to be frightened by Jaws because they’re not going in the water. … We were walking a fine line in that movie between how threatening and frightening would we make it.
KAZEL: Do you think a movie such as WarGames – about the danger of nuclear war, and deterrence theory, games theory – could be made today? Would there be any audience, or would studios be interested in it?
BADHAM: Well, at the time, nobody wanted to make WarGames. Leonard [Goldberg] managed to get it set up with United Artists…. It was tough to make, and the attitude of the studios was, “It’s about some kid with a computer, and who believes that?” Nobody got it. And yet, lots of imitations came out – lots of films trying to copy it afterwards, about kid geniuses running around.
KAZEL: Is it your impression that your film changed the way any leaders thought about nuclear weapons? It seems President Reagan may have thought that the movie was, in some ways, factual. Reagan biographer Lou Cannon has written that Ronald and Nancy Reagan screened the film before its release, and at a meeting with some Democratic congressmen to talk about the MX missile, he put aside his notes and started talking in a very excited way about WarGames and how it showed that a kid with a computer could break into NORAD.
BADHAM: Well, he certainly had a history, as an actor, of being able to suspend his disbelief and think about the possibilities: Could this happen and wouldn’t it be interesting? People have told me that maybe the Star Wars [strategic missile defense] initiative was bolstered by his seeing WarGames. … It definitely got some people thinking about it. I know we did a running in Washington that I attended, at the Motion Picture Association, where Dr. Helen Caldicott, who ran [Physicians for Social Responsibility] and Sen. Alan Cranston came. There definitely was an effort on MGM and United Artists’ part to get politicians aware of the film.
KAZEL: I think many people who saw WarGames when they were young still have strong memories of it. Also, there’s a page on Facebook dedicated to the movie, and a lot of people post messages saying they’ve discovered it for the first time and that it’s one of their favorite films. When you were making it, did you have any clue it would endure as long as it has?
BADHAM: Quite honestly, I don’t think about things like that. I can only judge my initial reaction, which on reading that script was a very powerful reaction to the characters and the situation they found themselves in. A similar thing happened to me with Saturday Night Fever. I just loved that script. I had an amazingly strong reaction to it. Other people did not. Studio executives just dismissed it as a little movie. People asked me afterward, did I know that Saturday Night Fever was going to be this giant hit? No, I didn’t know. I just knew I really liked it and thank goodness, for once, my taste and the public’s tastes were in sync.
KAZEL: For WarGames, could a movie of its type have had anything other than a happy ending? At the end, everyone is smiling and hugging and the NORAD officers are throwing papers into the air. The final music is very lighthearted and breezy. There was very little criticism of the movie, but some critics have said there wasn’t even a glimmer of anything menacing at the end, or that nuclear weapons were still a huge danger.
BADHAM: That was definitely the ending that everybody wanted. I did not have a good idea at the time of [implying] that there is still something lurking in the background, that [the risks] haven’t gone away, as a little dangling thing to put out there. We were under the gun in delivering this to the theaters because it had been promised and we had started late. So we flew through post-production, and everybody was very happy with that kind of ending – though I absolutely understand what you’re telling me, and that criticism is very fair. It might have added a whole layer of extra texture and meaning to the film.
KAZEL: They [studio executives] wanted it entertaining instead of dark because the demographics of theater audiences had changed since the days of Fail-Safe?
BADHAM: Yeah. You can look at Fail-Safe and say, that really didn’t go anywhere. People who liked films, maybe, saw it. Here [with WarGames, we said,] “We’re going to spend a lot of money on a dodgy subject. Let’s at least make it entertaining.”
Badham, 73, now teaches would-be directors in the film program at Chapman University in Orange, Calif. Historically, he says, he’s refused to read critics’ reviews of his films, good or bad, so he was unaware that Chicago Tribune movie maven, the late Gene Siskel, in 1983 wrote glowingly of his nuclear-brink hit. “Who is to say that WarGames won’t have the same connection to this generation of moviegoers that the wicked burlesque of Strangelove had to a generation earlier,” Siskel asked. In particular, the critic lauded the film’s spotlight on the growing role of computers in military systems, writing that “we have come to trust our computers more than ourselves, thus allowing our own personal responsibility for the future to be taken out of our hands and placed on autopilot.”
In WarGames, the teenage protagonist finds that no one understands or appreciates hackers, who haven’t appeared on the country’s radar screens yet. He’s arrested by the FBI, which accuses him of espionage. Much has changed. Today, the government is giving young hackers jobs. According to Fast Company magazine, the Pentagon believes cyber attacks on U.S. computer networks soared 17-fold between 2009 and 2011. Last year, the National Security Agency said it was supplying government-designed curriculums to four U.S. universities so that college computer hackers can be fast-tracked into cyber-security jobs, not only at the NSA but at such places as the CIA and nuclear weapons labs.
The curriculum recommended by NSA would be right at home on David Lightman’s bookshelf: Applied Cryptography, The Basics of Hacking and Penetration Testing, Practical Malware Analysis.
At one of the colleges that have adopted the coursework, the government-run Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., cyber-warfare students also take part in a special 11-week project: War games.
Robert Kazel is a Chicago-based freelance writer and was a participant in the 2012 NAPF Peace Leadership Workshop.