I recently revisited WarGames and found myself enjoying the film as much as I did when it first hit theaters in 1983.
As you may recall, the film came out right as home computers were becoming popular and provided a windows of sorts to those interested in learning about hacking.
But could the story told in War Games happen in real life? Well, WarGames director John Badham told me that it’s probably a lot more difficult today than way back when.
“There’s more of an era of trust about [War Games in the 80s]. It was something everybody was excited about, how to start linking up computers. First you just had computers trying to do things by themselves. You sat there and fed information into ’em, now this computer could talk to that computer, and you had to figure out ways to do it, and it was pretty complicated,” he explained.
“There was this whole atmosphere of trust and, ‘We’re working on this together.’ So the thought that someone might have stumbled in through some back door into the NORAD system is certainly a stretch, but not out of complete credibility. Nowadays, forget it. No way. Everything is separated, but this was before the Internet [went mainstream]. There’s so many more safeties.”
As Badham continues, “[Sure], there had been a couple of incidents that inspired the story, but they were really taken to a new level by Walter Parkes and Larry Lasker, who had written the script. [You see], Larry’s parents were friends of the Reagans. Larry and Walter were both Yale students, and they got to see NORAD system as VIPs through the Reagans.
“The thought then occurred [to them]: what if a kid could get in from home? What a mess he could create. They went off on that with brilliant research that explained what NORAD was really like, what all these war games were, which were these various scenarios the war department had been working on for decades, and how this would all play out. Nobody understood the idea at the time. Universal put the movie in turn-around: ‘A kid can do this? Oh get out of here! We can’t even boot up the computer.'”
Of course, back when WarGames came out, hacking wasn’t as widespread as it is today, and home computers were just starting to catch fire, so obviously there would be skeptics about the premise of the film.
Badham says, “When WarGames came out, many reviews said, ‘This is complete bullsh*t. Nothing like this could ever happen.’ And I started to get worried that Larry and Walter had made up more of this than they were copping to! And then along comes, I think they called them The Milwaukee 414, it was like the area code of Milwaukee, and it was a bunch of kids that hacked their way into the defense department’s computer.
“Were they inspired by WarGames? Maybe, maybe not, I don’t know. They certainly had to have enough knowledge to be able to do that. That’s pretty impressive stuff, and I’d say it happened within three or four weeks of the movie coming out.”