Nuclear Friday: Teens With Nukes

I had planned to write about cosmic ray spallation, isotope ratios in the atmosphere, and what they can tell us about global warming this week, but the holidays have intervened. As I have mentioned a few times on the board, my dad is dying. He’s fading fast and can no longer drive. This will be our last Christmas and I ended up in charge. At least I got my mom to sign up for MTAHC MetroLift to get them to doctors appointments since my mom is going blind.

I’ve been around my family more in the last few months than in the previous eight years. That really makes you think. I was trying to remember the last time all of my “nuclear” family ever went to the movies together. Turns out that was easy to remember. It was late summer 1983. My brother was home from college and Hurricane Alicia has just scored a direct hit on Houston. We had been without power for six days. I heard a rumor that a nearby area had gotten power days ago. So we made plans to eat out and enjoy an air conditioned movie experience. I lobbied hard for WarGames. I had been a nuke geek since 1979, so thats what we saw.

And in this movie, two teens unwittingly cause a nuclear false alert, and set in motion a chain of events that could lead to a full nuclear exchange at peak 80’s readiness.

Here’s the trailer. It’s very good at capturing the spirit of the film without giving away the plot.

It starts off looking like another trite and condescending teen romance film I was so sick of back when it came out and becomes a total nuclear shitstorm.

But the best thing about this movie is that there never was any teen romance. Jennifer (Ally Sheedy) is simply curious about David (Matthew Broderick) rather than attracted to him. This is not an an example of the “hot girl-geeky guy” trope. David has some measure of respect in his school and Jennifer has her own problems. Yes, she’s the more worldly and grounded character, but I think the film does convey that she has considerable intellectual depth that has been thwarted by her parents.

There are many references to Dr. Strangelove in WarGames. The Big Boards of the NORAD set in WarGames consumed a huge amount of the budget just like the Board and the War Room set did in Strangelove. And more importantly, in WarGames there’s a discussion whether scrambled bombers recalled after the false alert should be ordered to attack since if there’s going to be a nuclear exchange anyway it’s better to hit as hard as you can to minimize damage to the US. This is exactly the premise of Dr. Strangelove. Do you hit as hard as you can in the event of accidental or unauthorized nuclear war or do you try another way? Of course, Soviet second strike capability was much more devastating in 1983 than it was in 1964, so the choice is much more dire, as if the millions of losses in a 1964 war would not be bad enough.

There are technical errors in WarGames but it gets all the basic premises of nuclear war right. Like Strangelove, it emphasizes positive control. I have written before how Fail Safe fails by presuming negative control. Overall, the film is a pretty good depiction of real life nuclear war theory.

And the hacking is realistic too. David is not some magic computer genius as was common in later 80’s films. He works hard and is a clever social engineer. There’s a lot of emphasis on password security and research. Nothing David and Jennifer do is is explained away as “teens are computer geniuses”. Hackers to this day consider WarGames as a realistic depiction of their skills.

In my research into WarGames I was surprised to find no mention that this 1979 false alert is not mentioned as an inspiration for the movie. It’s the movie in real life. A tape reel with data simulating a Soviet attack was mistakenly uploaded to the main NORAD screens. NORAD put defenses on alert and bombers were readied for takeoff before anyone in the civilian chain of command was even called.  None of my research into the writers of WarGames cites this incident. I think they were asked not to talk about it and they didn’t

So, folks get together and watch streaming movies at Christmas from what I hear. Show your youngins WarGames. it’s a realistic presentation of 80’s Cold War theory and a respectful depiction of teens as something other than sex and status obsessed monsters.



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