I’ve spoken at length about the beautiful story structure of WarGames, and now I’m going to share 10 little touches that make me absolutely love this movie. There are a lot of thrillers out there, but there’s something special about WarGames, and I think these 10 details explain much of its appeal and why it continues to stand out from the crowd as one of the best suspenseful films of all time.
1. Garden Talk
The small talk in this film comes across as authentic and off the cuff, much like a Quentin Tarantino film. And that’s appropriate because one of the first men we see engaging in such small talk is none other than Michael Madsen. He and his associate are on their way to a bunker to stand ready to launch their nuclear missiles if they are ever required to do so. On their way, they have an in-depth conversation about gardening, growing fruits, and other plant-related topics. It comes across as gibberish to the uninitiated, but it does a great job making us instantly like these two guys and understand that they’ve known each other a long time. That makes the tense moment when one points a gun at the other all the more shocking.
2. David Finds the School Password
“Biffer,” “Handle,” “Effort,” “Points,” “Double,” and “Pencil” are on the list of passwords used by the high school staff to log into their computer system. There’s a story behind every one of those passwords, and they all look interesting. Plus, there’s a story behind David Lightman first discovering where the passwords are hidden and deliberately getting sent to the principal’s office from time to time to see when they’ve been changed. This is clever storytelling because it presents so much to us in such a short amount of time, and it also teases a whole lot more than it shares, which intrigues the audience.
3. Jim and Malvin
There are a million ways to deliver exposition, most boring and some creative. When David needs information about a strange list of games he finds, he goes to a couple of computer experts named Jim and Malvin. This scene easily could have been a simple data dump, but instead it infuses two exposition-spouting characters with so much personality that it becomes incredibly compelling. Jim is clearly a bit paranoid and his anger is constantly boiling right below the surface while Malvin is socially awkward and insensitive about other people’s feelings. Watching them fight each other for dominance as they provide clues to David is funny and engaging so that even though they appear in just this one scene, they leave a big impression.
4. Everything Involving David’s Parents
David’s parents easily could have been overshadowed by their son, but every scene they appear in is hugely entertaining because of what they bring. I love the detail of seeing the dad butter his bread and then twist a corn on the cob inside it to quickly spread butter over it. I can totally picture my own dad doing that. Anyway, he takes one bite and is horrified to discover that the corn is raw. His wife is completely unfazed, saying that it’s packed full of vitamins, but he’s having none of it. I love that neither one is angry at the other; they’re just on different wavelengths. And when Jennifer Mack randomly stops by David’s house and his dad answers the door, he comes across exactly like a dad should. Even though he’s never met her before, he just goes with it without being overly inquisitive. In fact, the only question he asks her is if she knows another word for “tumulus,” which is rather out of left field, but, again, it comes across as a genuine thing for him to say. Oh, and Mr. and Mrs. Lightman do save the world by telling David to drop what he’s doing and clean up the mess he caused, which inadvertently stops David from playing Global Thermonuclear War with a computer that thinks it’s for real. So they’re pretty much the most important characters in the movie.
5. Falken’s Family
The scene where David watches footage of Dr. Stephen Falken and his young son while Jennifer reads about the son’s tragic death has the power to bring me to tears. The music, visuals, and dialogue combine perfectly to tug at my heartstrings. In fact, this scene, at least in part, inspired me to name my first son Joshua. Again, this could have been handled very differently with David just telling Jennifer all of the information he’s learned about Falken. But by having Jennifer read the article and share her feelings about it to the audience, it adds an important element of emotion to the scene.
6. McKittrick’s Gum
John McKittrick easily could have come across as a dry character or even as a villain. After all, it’s his idea to take the men out of the missile silos and replace them with a thinking machine, which nearly leads to World War III. But, thankfully, he’s imbued with so much humanity that we’re never rooting against him. One moment that cements his character as likable is when he’s getting ready for a meeting that he knows is going to go badly, and his personal assistant is coaching him and making sure he looks his best. Right before he leaves her, he absentmindedly takes out a piece of gum he’s been chewing and puts it in her hand. It’s not done maliciously, but as though she’s told him a thousand times before not to chew gum in a meeting because it looks unprofessional, and he’s just trying to be respectful. Rather than throwing the gum away or reacting in disgust, she pauses for a moment and puts the gum in her own mouth. It says so much about their friendly working relationship and how patient she is with his idiosyncrasies.
7. Guard Hits on the Nurse
David needs a plausible way to escape from the infirmary at NORAD while under guard. He might have been forced to come up with a complex diversion, but instead he finds that the guard just so happens to be distracted while ineffectively making a pass at a cute nurse. This is an incredibly compelling scene because earlier we saw the guard flirting with her, and it seemed like he had a good chance of getting a date with her. It’s only when David makes it out the door that things turn south, and the guard falls flat on his face. For David, it’s a stroke of good luck. For the guard, it’s a one-way ticket to the doghouse.
8. David Doesn’t Know How to Swim
David knows a lot about technology. Each time he’s put into a terrible situation, he manages to get out of it by using his superior technical skills to improvise a solution. We see this during his escape from the infirmary and when he gets a payphone to work without a quarter. So it really humanizes him when he admits to Jennifer that he doesn’t know something simple like how to swim. He grew up in Seattle surrounded by water, and he never got out enough to spend time at a beach or pool. It makes sense because he spent all of his time learning about computers, but it’s still a humbling moment for him, especially after he criticized Jennifer about her D in Home Economics.
9. Jennifer’s Aerobics Show
Right after David admits his failure to learn how to swim, Jennifer offers her own humanizing moment when she tells David that, if the world wasn’t about to end, she was going to appear on a TV show the following week in a segment about aerobics. She’s embarrassed to admit it because she assumes no one would have even watched it, but David eagerly says he would have. This revelation doesn’t exactly come out of nowhere. We’ve seen her going on a run and doing intense stretches in aerobic clothing, and this serves to pay off those moments. It’s not necessary to the story, but it is important to rounding out her character and showing a side of her that David was oblivious to until this point. Plus, I love it when actors refer to each other as a “movie star” in an ironic way.
10. Falken and McKittrick Banter
If there’s one thing I wish WarGames would have explored more, it’s the relationship between Falken and McKittrick. These two are giants in their field, and they have a long history working together. We really only get one brief exchange between them when Falken bursts into NORAD while the government believes the Soviet Union has launched an all-out nuclear assault. It’s not the best time for a conversation, so they have to be quick, and what we do get is absolutely brilliant. McKittrick gets right to the point and says he doesn’t know what Falken thinks he can do while Falken joyfully greets his old friend and sardonically comments that he sees that McKittrick’s wife still picks his ties. It hints at an old barb playfully had between confidants.
Little Touches Lead to Strokes of Genius
WarGames is one of my favorite films because it takes the time to tell its story in an interesting way. All of these little touches create a feeling of a truly lived-in world where the characters have complex lives outside of this one story we’re seeing. And no moment feels wasted or unnecessary. When we reach the climax, if the film hadn’t invested time and personality into all of the characters David and Jennifer encountered along their journey, the victory would have felt hollow because we wouldn’t have felt what was at stake. We want everyone we’ve met to survive. If we didn’t care about them, we would feel the same way we feel about the faceless Soviet Union: nothing.
It wasn’t necessary to add depth and complexity to what could have been throwaway characters, but the fact that this film did that is a big part of why it stands above most films in its genre.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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