Tuesday, January 2, 2018

WarGames

You never know where these things show up. 

Over the Holidays, I was reading Garret M. Graff's intriguingly titled book "Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government's Secret Plan to Save Itself While the Rest of Us Die", when a fascinating passage about a movie showed up. More about that after a look at the film that was mentioned.

WarGames (Martin Brest/John Badham 1983) Seattle high-schooler David Lightman (Matthew Broderick) is a bit of a video-game whiz. Not adept at regularly taking out the garbage, he is quite unique at tasks of a more idle nature. And dishonest. He manages to find his way into his high school's computer to change his grades and those of his friend, Jennifer Mack (Ally Sheedy). When he hears that a new version of a game that he's expert at is about to put on the market, he uses a phone algorithm to speed-dial through the permutations, but is blocked from getting into it by a firewall.

After some consultation with some game enthusiasts/hackers at the University of Washington, he learns of "back-doors" that can be used to get into databases. He's intrigued by one web-site but frustrated that he can't get through its firewall, but the program addresses him as "Dr. Falken," and he uses that nugget of information to do some research and come up with the right security password—"Joshua", the name of Falken's child (now deceased).

But, unbeknownst to him, he hasn't logged into a video-game web-site; he's logged into NORAD, one the nation's defense hubs, and gleefully starts to play a game called "Global Thermonuclear War."

It's no game. At NORAD headquarters, they see the launch simulation as an actual attack, as they don't know what the source is. A new program is underway at NORAD as there has been a noted reluctance on the part of personnel to launch attacks during drills* and director McKittrick (Dabney Coleman) has put the launch controls in the virtual hands of an automated system called the WOPR (War Operation Plan Response). That would be semi-okay if there was an actual launch detected instead of a kid playing around in his bedroom. But before any launch codes can be acquired, the attack is stopped...just like that.

But, the signal is traced back to the source. And, before you can say "you have the right to remain silent," David is arrested and charged with espionage. It seems the WOPR is still running simulations as it has made no differentiation between David's simulated game and an actual attack. Despite this, in a section that strains credulity a bit, given the security at any NORAD facility, David manages to escape the underground complex and, with Jennifer's help, enlists the aid of retired Professor Stephen Falken (John Wood), who is persuaded to come back to the NORAD facility in an attempt to circumvent a triggering of World War III.

It's a fun movie—the switch-over from Brest to Badham was to ensure that the film's touch was lighter than originally intended—but, there are still moments of genuine unease, as the automated systems still manage to continue cogitating, briskly running through possible launch code configurations and attack scenario's that bathe the elaborate NORAD set in an un-eathly light as the screens white-out with displays of nuclear annihilation (kudo's to John Rubinstein's score in that section). The "game"-plan to teach the system the difference between game-theory and "mutually assured destruction" is a bit of a stretch, but as long as the world doesn't blow up, you'll take any way out of it.

Now, a couple things. The first is the conception of Dr. Stephen Falken. The character was based on Stephen Hawking, and the cosmologist was approached to actually play the role while the script was being developed. He refused, because, at this point in his battle with ALS, he felt his appearance might be exploited. The next person the writers turned to was, of all people, John Lennon, who expressed interest in the role, but was assassinated in 1980. Imagine John Lennon in WarGames (I wonder if you can).
But, the most interesting thing about WarGames was its impact after its release. Co-writer Larry Lasker was a friend of President Ronald Reagan, and one night, Reagan settled down at Camp David for a screening of the film. The film affected him deeply, and returning to Washington, he began to make inquiries about hacking and whether what he saw in the film might actually occur. As the film was scrupulously researched with experts from the RAND Corporation and the Stanford Research Institute, he was assured that, yes, such a thing was possible, and not only that, probable. Reagan did two things: he began discussing the film with members of Congress, the Joint Chiefs, and others, leading to NSDD-145, a National Security Directive on securing government computers from cyber-attack.

He also changed his priorities about nuclear weapons. The first years of Reagan's presidency saw him cautioning about military weakness in the face of, what he termed, "The Evil Empire" of Soviet Russia, starting an massive escalation in the military budget. After WarGames, he turned his attention to negotiating with Soviet leaders about nuclear disarmament and reducing tensions (and targets) between the two countries. 

After WarGames

It is hard to say exactly what influence a "kid's movie" might have on national policy, but its message of "the only winning move is not to play" still resonates, albeit there are "some" who still hold to the idea that a thermonuclear war is "winnable."

They just haven't figured out who would be left to "declare" it.






* There is an opening scene depicting just that happenstance, and the two grunts locked in that conflict ("TURN your KEY, sir!") are portrayed by John Spencer and Michael Madsen.

** In my past life as a audio engineer, I had the opportunity to work with and get to know one of the actors in the film, Barry Corbin, who plays Gen. Jack Beringer. When I first met Corbin, I was a little skeptical of his huge cowboy hat and thick Texas drawl because I'd seen him in this film and the drawl wasn't there. I thought he might be putting on "cowboy airs." But, he was born in West Texas and he comes by it genuinely (He IS an actor, after all...). I also came to find him an extraordinarily talented and well-read, sophisticated gentleman (He did one of those things I love to see actors do—he had a script for a 60 second commercial that in his first run-through he did in 90 seconds, and then, without benefit of any editing, proceeded to do a second "take" that was precisely 60 seconds and just as nuanced, albeit rushed—he just wanted to see if he could actually do it!). He was working on the TV show "Northern Exposure" (which was filmed in the area) and he had frequent calls to do voice-over work, and I found him to be a fascinating, gifted individual. I asked him once why he chose to play Deputy Roscoe Brown, a very gullible and low-brow character in the mini-series "Lonesome Dove" and he said "You just want to be a part of something that special...any part." 

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