After my 70s movie didn’t give me anything I wanted to write about (Mean Streets), I got to an 80s movie. I find it much easier to talk about the 60s and 70s, for one thing because they seem more special to me, but also because I find it harder to grasp the 80s, to get a feel for them. Maybe also because I was born in 1980 and it’s harder to view a decade if you’ve actually been there. Distance certainly helps. Anyway, the 80s to me are somewhat the antithesis of the 60s and 70s, which were a time where real change was possible, while the 80s felt like taking two steps back. But instead of the conservatism of the 50s, the 80s were governed by extreme capitalism and a superficiality that is often mocked but still true. Even if it’s an overgeneralization (as it must be if you try to summarize 10 years in history in a few keywords), there’s a reason why MTV, hairstyles and silly pop music are representative for this era.
Anyway, the movie is WarGames with Matthew Broderick and directed by the solid John Badham. I was surprised how much I liked the movie, despite some silliness. But I found it suspenseful and entertaining. It did not fall into all of the 80s movie traps, unlike another classic I watched not long ago for the first time, The Karate Kid, which I would consider to be worse in many ways. At least it had only one music montage, which is odd for an 80s movie.
Here are some zeitgeist observations on WarGames:
Cold War: The Cold War is mostly associated with the 60s but the threat of a nuclear apocalypse was very present in the 80s (I remember some of it). The movie makes that crystal clear right from the opening scene. To people it seemed like a likely scenario, not without reason, and the film gives some dark views on that fear. I know that it seems hard to imagine today but for about 20-30 years the world lived in that constant fear. I’m not sure if that was replaced with other fears (terrorism works, more than global warming unfortunately) after the end of the Cold War in 1989 (Noam Chomsky doesn’t think so), but it nevertheless it says something about our culture. A culture that is ready to exterminate itself over political disagreements or power is not something I would put too much trust in. By the way, the strong anti-war message is something that I cannot imagine in a modern movie anymore. It’s similar to dealing with authority (see below) as that everyone knows war is bad (almost a cliché) but actually doing something against it, is not a common thing.
Fatalism: One character, Falken (John Wood), is very fatalistic in his view of the world. His argumentation says that humans are bound to be erased, just like the dinosaurs, and that it’s for the better. The movie tries to imply that Falken later changes his mind, but it’s not absolutely clear because in the end he softly smiles the same way as when he talks about the end of humanity. “Humanity is planning its own destruction” he says. What he should say is: “Our culture is planning its own destruction” which is still true today. It’s one fascinating aspect of the 80s and clearly a result from the failure of dreams and hopes of the rebellious 60s and 70s to achieve change. And it serves as a good explanation for the aforementioned superficiality. Do you want to think of the end of the world all the time or dance to the newest music video? Fatalism vs. escapism is an easy choice for most people. There are more options of course but the movie doesn’t really go that way.
Sexism: The Incomparable Podcast on that movie was more observant for this than me while watching it, but I could only agree. Women don’t play an important role here. The only real character is Jennifer (Ally Sheedy) and she mostly comes across as naïve or plain stupid. And that’s almost it. David (Matthew Broderick) has a mother who seems kind of crazy (but so does his father) and McKittrick’s (Dabney Coleman) assistant is mostly there to serve him or to make mistakes. It’s mostly a men’s world, especially seen when a soldier basically sexually harasses a typist and it’s just used as a plot point for David to escape. One scene stands out to me though (which no one mentioned on the podcast). David shows Jennifer who Falken is, which is a 41-year-old computer engineer, with some old video footage and her first reaction is: “That’s him? Wow! He’s amazing looking!” Which is the oddest thing she could have possibly said but it completely makes her look like she doesn’t have a brain. Just to see how odd it is, here is what she is looking at when she utters this:
I mean, who wouldn't be sexually aroused by this?
Anti-authoritarianism: Yes, nothing’s complete without authority. What made the 60s and 70s so special is that authority was questioned and challenged as never before. When it became clear that authority prevailed, many became disillusioned. The 80s challenged authority to but in different ways, as the movie shows. David (Broderick) makes fun of his teachers, doesn’t take his parents seriously and uses his computer to change his grades, overriding his teachers’ authority again. But this is not an attack on authority. All he does is see his advantage and authority is just something to pass. There is no goal in working against authority, he never tries to undermine it, he just doesn’t really care. This is something that has not changed until today, I would think. Thinking about my students, it’s clear to them that most authority figures suck and they find their ways to get around them, but it’s never with the goal of actually tumbling authority. Authority as a concept is totally accepted even if in most cases there is no reason for it. Instead of “Down with authority!” it’s mostly “Authority? Whatever.” In the movie, this is made even clearer when in the end David follows Falken and McKittrick in their authority, especially hoping for Falken’s approval.
In the end, none of these themes are too blatant and the movie is perfectly enjoyable without ever thinking too much about its themes.