When I listed 10 details that elevate WarGames above most thrillers, I criminally left out one of the best characters in the movie, General Beringer. This guy is amazing in every one of his scenes. He has a commanding presence that can’t be ignored, and he’s always so intense and serious that it makes one of his last scenes that much more memorable. He demonstrates the perfect way to deliver and respond to insults.
You see, General Beringer is put to the ultimate test when the computer defense system W.O.P.R. tells him that the Soviet Union has launched an all-out attack on the United States, and he has just minutes to decide how to respond. He goes to DEFCON 1, but at the last second he holds off on actually retaliating with a U.S. missile strike. And thank goodness he does because it turns out that the Soviet attack was a fake simulation created by W.O.P.R. to trick the U.S. into starting World War III.
General Beringer is euphoric when he learns it was a hoax, but that feeling quickly turns to dread when he hears that the computer isn’t relinquishing its control of the nuclear arsenal, and it plans on randomly trying launch codes until it finds the right one to attack the Soviet Union with more than 1,000 nuclear missiles. And then we get this amazing interaction between General Beringer and Dr. McKittrick. McKittrick is the one who fought to take control out of the hands of humans and put his trust in W.O.P.R. despite the general’s objections.
At this point General Beringer has been proven right so eloquently, he hardly needs to say anything. But he can’t help himself. Does he lash out and get angry? No, he delivers a devastating insult with a smile: “Mr. McKittrick, after very careful consideration, sir, I’ve come to the conclusion that your new defense system sucks.”
McKittrick is clearly under immense stress, but he doesn’t deal with it as well as the general. He looks stunned for a moment by the insult, and he responds in kind, saying, “I don’t have to take that, you pig-eyed sack of $#!&.”
The natural response to that kind of statement is to lose one’s temper, but General Beringer manages to keep his cool, smile good-naturedly, and respond with a backhanded compliment: “Oh, I was hoping for something a little better than that from you, sir, a man of your education.”
In both of the general’s mocking statements, he refers to McKittrick as “sir,” and he attacks the computer system he created, not the man himself. In fact, his last statement could be seen as a positive statement, noting that McKittrick is well-educated and has the potential to think of clever turns of phrase. It’s McKittrick who gets personal and attacks the general’s looks.
Oddly enough, this interaction feels like something out of a Jane Austen novel. Her characters are often so witty that they try to throw shade on people they despise without actually saying something nasty to their face. Instead, they slyly hint at their flaws, and it’s the person who resorts to a direct attack who ends up losing the argument and looking foolish. After all, “angry people are not always wise.”
I think we can all take a lesson from the way General Beringer and Dr. McKittrick talk to each other. They obviously hate each other, but one has the decency to couch his contempt between compliments while the other can’t control his knee-jerk reaction in the heat of the moment. To smile at an adversary is the most infuriating response to their name-calling because it’s the opposite of the response they are seeking. Personally, I prefer not to resort to insults because I prefer to uplift and challenge with ideas. But if you’re engaged in a war of words, you might as well treat it like a game as General Beringer did.
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