Tribeca Film Festival: WarGames

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It is all fun and games – until you accidentally start World War III. That is what Matthew Broderick’s character, David, discovers in the acclaimed 1983 film WarGames.

Believing he hacked into a war-based computer game, David starts to play the game by sending missiles from the Soviet Union to the United States. What he does not realize is that he hacked into the U.S. military’s War Operation Plan Response (WOPR) supercomputer, and his game is believed to be a real attack. A thrilling chase to save the world ensues, and, well, we will not spoil it for you.

Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy in WarGamesWarGames recently showed up on the big screen again as part of the annual Tribeca Film Festival. A panel followed the screening, featuring John Badham (WarGames director), Ally Sheedy (Brockerick’s co-star), Pablos Holman (hacker), Gavin Anderson (lead developer, Bitcoin), and William Casebeer (researcher, DARPA). The event was sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation as part of the TFI Sloan Film Program, now in its 11th year.

Moderator Craig Hatkoff (co-founder, Tribeca Film Festival) dove right in, asking Badham about the making of the film. The script came to Badham after the original director parted ways with the project, but that did not stop Badham from being enthusiastic about WarGames. “I read the script and then ran around the house jumping up and down because the characters in the script were so alive and original. I was so taken with them; I wanted to make this film a reality,” he recalled. He also remembered Broderick and Sheedy as two very nervous, scared actors because, as Sheedy pointed out, both believed they were on the chopping block, so to speak. “What I had were two of the most terrified actors you have ever seen. They believed sincerely that they were going to be fired!” said Badham.

Badham also changed the mood of the film. The scenes filmed previous to Badham coming onboard were dark and secretive. “Sort of sad, really,” remembered Badham. “What I had decided was that these characters needed to have fun. I mean, if I could get a girl to come into my room and show her how I could change my Biology grade, I’d pee my pants!” Sheedy agreed that the film was “very dark and original” – different from any of her other roles. But Badham added a sense of fun to the film.

Outside of talking about the making of the film, Anderson, Casebeer, and Holman answered questions on the science of the film. Holman upheld it as the first, and maybe last, time hackers were portrayed accurately in film. “You cannot leave a hacker alone in a room for five minutes or they will take it apart,” he said, referencing a scene in the film when David, left alone for a few minutes by military guards, hacks back into the WOPR. “On the security side,” Holman explained, “the movie is as relevant as ever. Would you rather control our land or our computers? We are set up to protect the land but not so much with our computers.” For example, said Holman, there is a problem with attribution, or knowing who the attack came from. “Hackers can hack into [China’s computer] and launch missiles and you would not question that. We’re getting very specific, targeted attacks.”

Anderson added that he is optimistic about technology. “I think we have learned a lot of lessons since WarGames,” he said. But he also realized new protections are needed to guard computer security. “I think constantly about what the single points of failure would be and how we can protect against that.” Casebeer echoed the sentiments on failure, “We spend a lot of time thinking about failure at DARPA. On one hand, we want to take risks because it is necessary to create a revolutionary breakthrough. But as you push the technology along, you want to decrease the risk, so things like what happened with the WOPR will not happen.”

The panel ended with some questions from the audience on the nature of Ally Sheedy’s character Jennifer. Sheedy recalled Jennifer’s role as being much smaller in the original script, but her character helped explain the science and technology behind the plot by asking the other characters questions, so Jennifer ended up being a larger part of the final film. Sheedy also ended the panel with a thought of her own, “I keep going back to what the central theme of the film is: there’s no way to win, so what’s the point of playing the game?”

Jenn Creighton is a science junkie with a writing backbone. She tweets about cool science at @gurlcode.

Photos: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.


The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.