“WarGames”, on TCM: Matthew Broderick, the first incarnation of the hacker in Hollywood


In 1982, there were 621,000 personal computers in the United States. Hollywood could not help but seize the phenomenon. Thus was born, in 1983, a new type of hero, the nerd, endowed with not very cinematic talents, whose translation, on the screen, can be summed up in the image of an anxious face bent over a monitor while – generally out of field – fingers flutter across the keyboard. First of these computer geniuses and first of hackers, the nerd had the features of Matthew Broderick, 20 years old during the filming of WarGames.

A teenage comedy, John Badham’s film evokes a time when nuclear conflict was feared more than the melting of the ice caps, when computers had less memory than today’s microwave ovens. However, by throwing two teenagers into the cogs of a world that refuses to guarantee their survival – to say nothing of their future –, the very skilful scenario remains surprisingly topical.

David Lightman (Broderick) is one of the first specimens of a species that will soon invade the planet. A high school student in a school in Seattle (Washington), he spends his time in his room with his computer (an Imsai 8080, since you ask the question). Using an acoustic modem, he found a way to change his grades upon entering the high school system and uses this talent to attempt to woo classmate Jennifer (Ally Sheedy).

Anti-nuclear advocacy

While browsing the networks – which were not yet the Internet – in search of a new video game, David connects with a program that offers him to play a war game (in French “kriegspiel”, a word borrowed from German). However, a terrifying prologue showed two US Air Force officers in a silo as the order arrived to launch a missile at the Soviet Union. One of the two men refused, causing the military to be replaced by software called “WORP”.

What follows is part chase, part teenage romance (Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy were pretty much unknown then, but already chewable) and anti-nuclear advocacy. On the set of WarGames, John Badham had replaced at short notice Martin Brest, future director of Beverly Hills Cop (1984). Haloed by the success of Saturday night fever (1977), Badham had made a commitment with the United Artists studio to correct the too apocalyptic orientation that Martin Brest wanted to imprint on the film. Which gives a balancing act, on a wire stretched between Doctor Strangelove (1964, Stanley Kubrick) and Ferris Bueller’s Crazy Day (1986, John Hughes).

Some time after its American release, in June 1983, Ronald Reagan told the film to his advisers and to parliamentarians. A week later, General Vessey, Chief of Staff, submitted an alarming report to him, thus sealing the start of digital warfare and the place of WarGames in history.

WarGames, by John Badham. With Matthew Broderick, Dabney Coleman, Ally Sheedy (USA, 1983, 1:54).

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“WarGames”, on TCM: Matthew Broderick, the first incarnation of the hacker in Hollywood