For many people, Wargames was the first hacker film that really stuck with them. For some, the previous year’s Tron stands out but an entire generation of infosec professionals have seen Wargames, which is why we thought it’d be a great film to use for our first Mandalorian at the Movies (MatM) film review.
Wargames charts the story of young and brilliant David Lightman who inadvertently nearly brings about (and stops) nuclear armageddon. For a review of the film and a look at the related real-world case of the blackhat hacker who won not just one but two-porsches and trips to Hawaii through manipulating phone systems, read on.
The film features a (then) young Matthew Broderick as computer hacker extraordinaire David, who armed with little more than an acoustic coupler, an IMSAI 8080 and some enterprising wardialing manages to break into the top secret WOPR supercomputer (believing he’s hacked into a game company instead) and nearly starts World War III. Once David kicks off the “Global Thermonuclear War” program it’s a race against time to stop nuclear armageddon. David is picked up by the government who believe that he’s affiliated with the KGB. WOPR starts feeding false data to the defence staff (headed by an on-form Barry Corbin as General Beringer) in an attempt to provoke the US into retaliating. The tension creeps up with each increase in DefCon (Defense Condition) and David along with Peter Falken play Tic-Tac-Toe against WOPR in order to teach it the concept of futility. While attempting to crack the encrypted launch code WOPR runs through all the nuclear scenarios available to determine a winning strategy before concluding that the only way to win is not to play, before asking if anyone would like to play a game of chess instead.
How does it look today?
As a kids film it’s a little dated, as commentary on reaganism and the red terror it’s a great thing to watch. While the film itself looks a little yellow around the edges it provides a window into network computing for the masses in the early 1980s. The special effects while mostly not particularly special are roughly accurate, although the big screens in the command centre were actually created with projectors and hand-drawn animation.
There’s a good opportunity to see the IMSAI 8080 in action, along with the acoustic coupler David uses throughout the first part of the film. There’s also some good shots of an early 80s arcade and then popular arcade machine Galaga. Overall the effects are reasonably authentic albeit with some artistic licence but nowhere on the same scale as say, NCIS. There’s a few strange things, like David’s voice synthesizer being used in NORAD and the speed that the computer executes brute force attacks (but I’ll let that one slide, it wouldn’t have been very entertaining otherwise).
The strange story of Wargames and the real-world hacker
Would you like to play a game? Wargames is unique both as a film but also in how it featured in real-world events. Kevin Poulsen (a.k.a. Dark Dante, now a reformed hacker and respected journalist) was a (then) blackhat hacker who’s most well-known hack was the takeover of all phone lines for an LA radio station’s call-in competition guaranteeing that he would be the 102nd caller in order to win a Porsche 944 S2 in 1990. Like most early hackers, Poulsen started out as a ‘phone phreak’, a term used to describe those who would explore the inner workings of national and international telephone systems. During Poulsen’s time as a hacker, he became obsessed with wargames’ female lead Ally Sheedy, allegedly stalking her through phone lines and surveilling her Los Angeles home. Poulsen was caught and convicted as part of the early 1990’s Operation Sundevil activities conducted by the FBI. Over time he won two Porsches, $22,000 in cash and two trips to Hawaii. The incredible story of his life and times as a blackhat hacker can be found in Watchman: The Twisted Life and Crimes of Serial Hacker Kevin Poulsen.
If you’re going to watch Wargames it’s best not to take it too seriously. What might have been fascinating entertainment 30 years ago may seem a little childish now, but then again it is a kids film. If you’re looking for a decent film for a wet sunday afternoon you’ll struggle to go wrong. One to bore the kids to death with and reminisce about the good old days.