Tag Archives: Dabney Coleman

The Summer of ’83: WarGames

Fante’s Inferno celebrates summer movie-going by revisiting the films of the Summer of ’83.


WarGames Movie Poster

Release date: June 3, 1983

Directed by John Badham; Written by Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes

Starring Matthew Broderick, Dabney Coleman, John Wood, Barry Corbin, Ally Sheedy

See the trailer here.

Shall we play a game?

30 years later, these words spoken by Joshua still have a chilling resonance.

I’ve seen John Badham’s Wargames at least 20 times since my first screening at the Larchmont Theater in June 1983.  It’s one of my favorite films of that particular summer and a perennial favorite since.  Watching it again this week reminded me not only of what a great film WarGames is, but also of how it coincided with my Golden Age of computing in the 80’s.  Back in 1983 the green text on the black monitor of my school’s TSR-80 was as high tech as it got for me (until I moved up to the Commodore 64 and its Royal Blue start screen), but I really enjoyed the days of playing the Infocom classics (Zork, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Planetfall, Ballyhoo), Montezuma’s Revenge and Trolls and TribulationsWarGames is a time capsule of early 80’s computing, but the film still keeps me on the edge of my seat down to the final minutes.  Even with a young Matthew Broderick as the protagonist WarGames doesn’t feel like a teen adventure and holds its own as a well made Cold War thriller.

WarGames begins in the bunker of a nuclear launch site as two launch technicians (played by  actors Michael Madsen and John Spencer) arrive for their shift.  Their arrival at the launch facility is no different from any two average Joes arriving at the office for a day’s work.  But once the alarm sounds, they methodically go through the launch procedures, checking and confirming codes until they learn they must deploy the nuclear warhead.  Spencer’s character hesitates, and the scene ends with Madsen’s character holding up his revolver to get his partner to comply with their orders.  It’s soon revealed that the launch sequence was a test by higher ups to gauge the success rate of the crews following through on their orders to deploy their missiles.  Chief engineer John McKittrick (played by Dabney Coleman) uses this as an opportunity to install a supercomputer (the WOPR – War Operation Plan Response) to take the place of launch technicians and provide a failsafe against the possibility of human hesitation.

I recently took a trip to South Dakota with my faithful sidekick, and coincidentally one of our stops was the Minute Man Nuclear Missile Site near the Badlands national park.  Unfortunately the tour of the launch site was booked for the day, but we got to see a picture of it in the visitor center.  It looked exactly like the launch facility in the opening scene of WarGames so I asked the Park Ranger on duty that day if any films were shot there after it was “retired.”  She advised that the site has never been used as a movie location, but launch facility set created for WarGames was accurate and identical to Minute Man.  With the exception of Michael Madsen pulling out a gun on John Spencer, even the launch sequence in the film was accurate.

Enter David Lightman (played by Matthew Broderick), a high school student and computer whiz who would rather use his talents as a hacker than apply himself in school.  He purposely gets his teachers to send him to the principal’s office so he can look up the passwords to their network and hack into their system.  During dinner with his parents, he learns that computer game company Protovision will be releasing a new line of games.  David can’t wait for them to be released, so he attempts to hack into their network and get early access to the games.

After days of research and long nights trying to crack Protovision’s network through a back door in the system, a benign remark by his friend Jennifer (played by Ally Sheedy) provides David with the logon and password he needs to break in.  But instead of hacking into Protovision, David has unwittingly hacked into the WOPR (also known as Joshua).  He is greeted by Joshua, who thinks that David is his creator Dr. Stephen Falken, and suggests a game of chess.  David insists on playing Global Thermonuclear War, however the “game” is actually the program used by the WOPR to simulate nuclear attacks.

David and Jennifer’s game sets off alarms at NORAD, and the staff headed by McKittrick and General Berringer (played by Barry Corbin) believes they are under nuclear attack by the Soviet Union.  The “threat” disappears when David shuts off his computer, and NORAD quickly learns that it was only a simulation.  They track the break in from David’s hometown of Seattle.  David quickly realizes the gravity of the situation when the simulated attack makes the evening news.  He disposes of the evidence but is still being contacted by Joshua.  The FBI takes David in for questioning at NORAD, but despite his insistence that he thought he was simply playing a game, McKittrick doesn’t believe his story and has him detained on suspicion of espionage.  He uses his tech savvy to sneak out of NORAD (which requires a little suspension of disbelief) and sets out to find Dr. Falken (played by the great John Wood) and prevent Joshua from starting a nuclear war.

What still makes the story accessible despite the dated equipment is Badham and Broderick’s representation of the fun and blank slate of the early days of home computing without dumbing it down with unrealistic graphics.  One of the caveats I’ve always had with computer/tech themed films is how the functionality of computers, networks, etc. are “jazzed up” to make computers more cinematic.  There’s a little bit of that with regard to David’s conversations with Joshua, but the simple typed lines of text typed onto an old school monitor ensure that WarGames doesn’t overachieve with regard to the functionality of early computers.

I already had a DVD copy of WarGames when the 25th Anniversary DVD was released in 2008.  Normally I would have been happy with my first copy, but this new edition had a Making Of featurette that made the purchase a no-brainer.  Despite my appreciation for WarGames and its rank among my all time favorites, I hadn’t actually researched the making of the film.

I didn’t know that John Badham had replaced Martin Brest (director of Scent of a Woman and Meet Joe Black) early in the film’s production.  Badham had received acclaim for the era defining 70’s classic Saturday Night Fever and had another hit film, Blue Thunder starring Roy Scheider released one month prior to WarGames.  Brest had Broderick and Sheedy initially playing their roles with a darker tone, but fortunately Badham lightened it up.  The beginning of the film needed the infusion of teenage innocence and cluelessness in order for the story to unfold more effectively.  The playfulness in Broderick and Sheedy’s early scenes really add to Broderick’s performance when McKittrick’s mistrust and threats hit David in the gut.

But one piece of information about the production that truly blew me away was how the producers had originally considered John Lennon to play the role of Dr. Stephen Falken.   While I think WarGames was near perfect as is, it would have been amazing to see how Lennon would have played the role.  Screenwriters Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes’ tight story combined with Badham’s direction and a fantastic, believable cast takes the audience on a great ride down to the final moments of the film.

WarGames made me and my brother beg our father to buy our first computer.  I still remember the day he drove us to Caldors department store and completely trusted us to make that purchase without balking at the price.  The Commodore 64 required a keyboard and disk drive purchased separately, and your TV would be the monitor.  The salesman asked if we also wanted the modem to go along with it.  I instantly thought of David Lightman using his modem to hack into Protovision.  Fortunately we didn’t add the modem to our purchase and we stayed at Defcon 5.

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Football on Film: North Dallas Forty (1979)

In honor of Super Bowl Week, Fante’s Inferno is highlighting the sport of professional football on film:

North Dallas Forty

North Dallas Forty Movie Poster

Release Date: August 3, 1979

Directed by Ted Kotcheff; Written by Frank Yablans & Ted Kotcheff and Peter Gent, based on the novel North Dallas Forty by Peter Gent

Starring: Nick Nolte, Mack Davis, G.D. Spradlin, Charles Durning, Bo Svenson, John Matuszak, Dabney Coleman, Dayle Haddon

North Dallas Forty is the football movie I measure all others up against.  That’s a big statement considering the classic football films that have been released over the last forty years: Brian’s Song, The Longest Yard, Remember the Titans and Paper Lion just to name a few.

I’d seen North Dallas Forty several times from my childhood through my teenage years and always enjoyed it, but always at face value as a good film with football as a backdrop.  But as I got older I developed a greater appreciation for it because of how much professional football has changed since then.  Watching it again this week, North Dallas Forty resonates with me on a completely different level now.  It reminded me of what professional players of the 60’s and 70’s went through to play the game on Sunday, warts and all, and gave me a greater sense of the physical toll the game took on their bodies while earning a fraction of the money today’s players make.

Writer Peter Gent took his experiences was a wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys in the 60’s and wrote the novel that would become the film.  The North Dallas Bulls football team in the book and film is loosely based on the Cowboys, with characteristics of that NFL team represented by the hyper-professional atmosphere, the team’s over reliance on a computer to gauge performance (and even attitude), and the Tom Landry-esque hat worn by the stern, icy head coach B.A. Strothers (played by G.D. Spradlin).

The movie begin’s with Bulls wide receiver Phil Elliot (Nick Nolte) waking up bloody and sore from the previous night’s game, each ache and pain represented by flashbacks to the hits that caused them the night before.  He gingerly gets out of bed and limps to his kitchen, his ankles still taped up, to start the day with a painkiller and a beer.  He limps like an old man throughout the film, except when he’s on the field.  His routes are precise, his hands the best in the league, and his bum knee numb from the needle.

Elliot’s partner in crime is North Dallas quarterback Seth Maxwell (played by Mac Davis).  They’re two players on the wrong side of 30 doing whatever it takes to make it another week.  But despite their cohesion on the field and their antics off of it, their differences become more evident as the film progresses: Elliot sacrifices for the game while Maxwell games the system.

Director Ted Kotcheff (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Fun with Dick and Jane, First Blood) does a good job balancing  the on and off the field storylines.  On one level you’re looking at this team of characters as they enjoy the lifestyle the game affords them, fueled by alcohol, drugs and women.  On another level you get a peek behind the curtain to see the pressure they’re under to perform and the lengths they’ll go to keep their spot on the roster.

One of the harder hitting scenes in the film occurs as the Bulls watch the game film from their last win.  Despite winning the game, Coach Strothers and his Maalox swilling assistant coach Johnson (Charles Durning) pick apart each play looking for flaws.  Offensive tackle Stallings (played by Jim Boeke, Peter Gent’s real life teammate on the Cowboys in the 60’s) is called out by Strothers for losing his footing and tripping on a play during a crucial drive.  The next scene shows his locker being cleared out by the equipment manager.  This is the moment you realize that even with success, no one is safe.  The film’s score even lends a sense of the sinister, highlighting  B.A.’s mind games, Elliot’s feeling of being watched, the fear each player has of losing his job, and the team doctor’s complicity in allowing them to harm their bodies even more just to play another game.

One of my pet peeves when watching sports films is how unrealistic the extras sitting in the stands can look during the game scenes, particularly in the reaction shots.  Having worked as an extra in a couple of sports films myself, when this is done wrong it can cheapen the look of the film (I may write a blog post on one of my experiences).  But Kotcheff made what I thought was an effective choice as a director by blacking out the stands in shadow during the game scenes.  You become so drawn to the emotion and action of the game that you barely notice that there are no fans visible.

The film has a strong cast down to the supporting characters.  You feel Phil Elliot’s physical pain in Nick Nolte’s performance.  Mac Davis’ nails the part of Maxwell in his first film role, and the confidence he infuses in his character makes you think he would really be able to lead an offense downfield with time running out.  Other notable performances include Bo Svenson as offensive lineman Joe Bob Priddy, the big ox that can snap at any moment, and Oakland Raider great John Matuszak as offensive lineman as O.G. Shaddock.  This was also Matuszak’s first movie, highlighted by a passionate monologue after their division championship game with Chicago.  In his 1987 autobiography Cruisin’ with the Tooz, Matuszak wrote about his audition for this role.  He had never acted before and didn’t really know what to do when he arrived for the audition.  Another actor also auditioning for the role of Shaddock told Matuszak to ask the casting director to let him give a cold reading, thinking that Matuszak’s lack of experience would show.  Matuszak nailed the audition.

North Dallas Forty is more than just a football film.  It’s a film about the pain and sacrifice players make for the game and for the team, only to find out that loyalty doesn’t always go both ways.  As Elliot says towards the end of the film, “The only thing that’s real in that game is me.  And that’s enough.”

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