If you’re an 80s kid you remember that one of the most prevalent topics was that of nuclear war. We were the last generation to really have it put in our faces as a real possibility, and while we weren’t doing the useless drills that our parents were to protect ourselves – hiding under your desk during a nuclear detonation, really? – we were taught all about living near a prime target and bomb shelters and mutually assured destruction.
The story here was quintessential 80s stuff. Matthew Broderick plays David Lightman, a class clown and slacker who is quite smart under it all, gets sent to the principal’s office for cracking wise with the teacher and find the password to school’s computer system. Along with new friend Jennifer Mack (Ally Sheedy) he hacks into NORAD, thinking he’s just playing some games, and accidentally triggers the defense network to start playing Global Thermonuclear War on the NORAD computers, throwing everyone there into a loop where they can’t confirm if the game is just a game or a real scenario.
Meanwhile the authorities come for David who has begun looking for the system’s designer, Stephen Falken, who has gone off the grid and given a fake death to hide where he is. David and Jennifer hope to find Falken and get him to shut down the system before it launches a real life nuclear strike that would kill us all. The story was a perfect intersection of two of the decades prevailing topics, computers and nuclear war, with some deeper messages the futility of nuclear war and the pros and cons of trusting both humans and machines with our safety.
So after all these years, how is it?
The casting of two leads is a plus right out of the gate. Way too many times with these high school movies and TV shows we get actors and actresses who are closer to 30 than 18 to play teenagers and it’s way too obvious from the facial hair on the guys to the girls who look every bit like full grown women and not girls like I went to high school with. Broderick was 19 and Sheedy was 21 when the movie was released, and both looked like they could still be high school students.
The rest of the cast is gold from Dabney Coleman as Falken’s former partner who’s opportunism helped make the whole situation possible to Barry Corbin as NORAD chief Gen. Berringer to John Wood as Falken. Everyone gets their moments without anyone getting blown off the screen here, even as this is the role that puts Matthew Broderick on the map to the general public.
The script deserves some credit, too. With as heavy handed a message as the film is centered around to start with the dialogue and it’s delivery is the difference between things feeling believable or coming off like a very special episode of some kids show. Everyone’s lines here for David and Jennifer to Falken and Berringer sound exactly what their real life counterparts would say if this was a real thing that happened, and that really helps the film hold up some almost 40 years later.
The director John Badham deserves some recognition too for not letting this turn into a display of overacting and scenery chewing. Given the subject matter and the sheer suspense behind the outcome this whole thing could have broken down into one messy display of people trying to show us just what all they can do and it did just the opposite. Everyone played it low key which helps the audience stay focused on the story and not laughing at any unintentionally funny moments that would have absolutely occurred had the cast been instructed to ham it up.
The pacing is excellent as well. The movie is just short of two hours and yet it doesn’t drag at any point. They spent the right amount of time on each scene before moving on and never lingered on anything too long. It didn’t feel like an almost two hour movie at all. And they did that without any elaborate action set pieces or anything else extravagant.
The quickness with which David meets Jennifer and then immediately invites her up to his room when no one else is home, and the ease with which she goes up there, is one of those things that no one gave a thought to in 1983. But in 2021 where the potential perils of that scenario are talked about much more it raised a red flag. That could be the patent in me but maybe not.
Outside of that, nothing really. There are some ‘kids smarter than adults’ moments but they’re not ridiculous like you see in sitcoms and such. Yes, a smart kid who works on outsmarting adults is going to succeed sometimes, particularly parents and teachers in the short run. But there wasn’t any long con going on here or anything where you just get exasperated at how clueless the adults are.
There were pretty bleak moments here, specifically moments where they are literally counting down to oblivion as they wait for the bombs to drop. The big message to the movie, that there’s no winning a nuclear war, is punctuated by these scenes where everyone at NORAD is just sitting there hoping for a miracle in the face of nuclear holocaust but unable to do anything to stop it. But those moments were about as real as you could get so they worked.
The sense that we could all be vaporized in an instant if someone in a bunker turns the wrong key was a pretty scary thought in 1983, and it’s funny that almost 40 years later the threat is just as real but we don’t even talk about it much. It’s probably better for our mental health but at the same time we’ve just moved on to other stressors.
Finally a lot of what have become tropes in military thrillers got their first big play here. DEFCON, the scale at which how close we are to war is measured, is introduced to us here. NORAD and it’s real location are also shown here for what may be the first time on film. We also hear a lot of jargon about passwords, backdoor, and other computer terms for what was the first time for a lot of people. It is a low-key introduction to a lot of things that would become staples of the genre.
Overall Verdict: 7/10
Overall quality: 4/6 (good), Enjoyabily 3/4
It’s 100 percent an 80s movie, but in a good way. A lot of the movies from that era have teenagers that only related to a narrow part of the audience (mainly white Midwestern suburbanites) but David could have been anyone, really. It’s funny at points but scary at others when you think about the real possibility of such a thing happening. It’s particularly unsettling to know that we have all of these well educated, well trained operators and scientists in our military and yet everything can still go to hell in in a moment’s notice.
Broderick plays the smart slacker role to a T, and this is a good appetizer to when he really takes off with it in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Here he’s the kid who gets in way over his head and has to outwit the experts before finally helping them get out of the jam that he helped put them in. Broderick doesn’t carry the movie per se but he is the heart of it as he goes from thrill seeking kid to talking Falken back into the game by appealing to what’s left of his humanity to set aside his indifference to it all.
Ultimately it holds up after all these years, even with the dated technology like the dial up modems and no cell phones. For a movie with such heavy subject matter it doesn’t feel like they’re hitting with a sledgehammer to get the point across. No speechifying about the perils of war but instead some real, normal conversations that make it clear what could happen. The characters all come across like they could be real, normal people.
So yeah if you want to take in an 80s movie that doesn’t get talked about as much in 2021 this is a good one to try out. I recommend it still 38 years after seeing it the first time.