War Games is an interesting mix of plots. The story opens with a tense moment where two Air Force missileers are ordered to launch their missiles and one of them refuses. This is discovered to be a widespread problem. To solve this, the Air Force pulls the men from the silos and entrusts the launch function to a computer, the WOPR (War Operation Plan Response).
As Broderick plays around, he discovers a system with no identifying information. On this system, he finds, mixed in among other games like Chess and Checkers, a game called Global Thermonuclear War. He decides to play this game. He will soon find out, however, that he has hacked into a military computer and he swears off playing this game. Unfortunately, the military computer (Joshua) is determined to play this game to the end and it begins calling his house. It also begins running surprise simulated attacks which NORAD is unable to tell from the real thing.
Soon enough, the FBI discovers what Broderick has done and they come after Broderick. He is taken to NORAD, from which he must escape to find the creator of the computer program – Dr. Stephen Falken, to get his help to shut down Joshua. And thus, they race against the clock.
Why This Film Excels
War Games is an excellent film. The plot is interesting. The characters are likable and you pull for them. At no point do they act stupidly or irrationally just to make the story work. The action, which hardly rates with action-movie standards, is nevertheless quite engaging and nail biting. The dialog is clever. And the solution to the film is surprising, tense, unexpected and yet completely believable. This is also one of the few films to make a story that revolves around computers interesting, and it does so without turning the human-computer interface into an unrealistic videogame. What ultimately makes this film work, however, is the humanity. Oh the humanity!
What do I mean by the humanity? At its core, this is a film about our humanity. Think about it. The story takes place because some percentage of human missileers were incapable of pushing the button when the time came. Their humanity wouldn’t let them kill millions of people in a hopeless cause. So the Air Force replaced them with a machine that wouldn’t think twice about doing so, and that machine proved to lack the humanity needed to understand the difference between games and reality.
Even the minor characters are deeply human. In the middle of this crisis, the Air Force guard finds time to flirt. The General too proves to be anything but a Hollywood stereotype. He trusts the judgment of men, not machines. He must put his faith in hope and trust the humanity of the Russians rather than mechanically responding to what appears to be a knock-out attack by the Russians, an amazingly difficult decision as he could well be costing the US the war. And the whole time, he displays the essence of humanity by telling biting jokes to alleviate the pressure, by abandoning rank and talking as a friend to try to comfort the soldiers he thinks are about to die, and by reaching out to God.
Everything flows from this too. The jokes and levity in the film work because they arise from the conflict between the character’s duties and their humanity. The ominous aspects of the film are because we understand the danger of removing humanity from the equation, and the tension at the end is because we just aren’t sure that a computer can be taught to be human... even though that is the only solution. The ending even becomes surprisingly joyous, and the reason is that the ending is about redemption rather than victory, i.e. the computer must learn to be human, as must each of the characters who allowed this problem to develop. In their redemption, we find joy, much more than we ever would if they had just unplugged the computer.
In fact, let me illustrate the difference by making this point. People cheer when cities get destroyed in most doomsday films, because those films are little more than special-effects laden films about cardboard characters no one cares about. Thus, the destruction of famous cities in those films is little more than a game to the audience... a joke.
But this film is different because people fall for the characters. Indeed, I think that is why this film remains popular (and very re-watchable) today even though the film is super dated, because you are watching for the people, not the plot. That’s also why the film remains tense even after you know how it will end, because you are feeling their tension rather than needing to build your own based on the plot. And because of this, this film differs from other doomsday films. If the director chose to show a city destroyed in this film, I doubt the audience would have cheered. They would instead have responded with revulsion because this film makes us feel a part of its world and connected to its people, and thus such an act would feel like the destruction of a real place.