Classic movie report: April 2015

I declared as one of my New Year’s resolutions that I would watch more classic old movies, so each month I’m devoting an entry to how I’m doing with it. Here are my two selections for April:

WarGames (1983) (3.5 stars out of 4)

WarGames may not be a great movie, but I find it so eminently entertaining and re-watchable that I have to give it 3.5 stars.

Matthew Broderick stars as David Lightman, a young computer maven and high school student who manages to hack into the U.S. Defense Department’s new super computer. In doing so, he engages its artificial intelligence in a way that almost causes a nuclear war. Ally Sheedy plays his adorable sidekick, Jennifer Mack, and the two become partners in crime.

The chief adults in the movie are Dabney Coleman as Dr. John McKittrick, the computer expert who persuaded the government to adopt the new mainframe, and John Wood as Dr. Stephen Falken, a withdrawn scientist whose theories become central to the story.

WarGames has its serious side. On occasion it has been cited by scholars as an excellent pop culture depiction of how Cold War mentalities and an uncritical worship of the “wisdom” of computer technology could lead us down a disastrous path.

But it’s also a ton of fun. Broderick and Sheedy are well-paired in this movie, and their scenes together include some hilarious high school moments and (now) nostalgic depictions of early personal computing and video games.

For me it pushes nostalgia buttons as well. I first saw WarGames when it was at the movie theaters in the summer of 1983. It was right after my first year of law school, and I was living in one of the law school dorms. In consultation with a couple of friends, we picked it out of the Village Voice listings and decided to give it try. I enjoyed it from the opening scenes, and I’ve watched it many times since then.


Gallipoli (1981) (3.5 stars)

Mel Gibson and Mark Lee co-star as young men from Western Australia who enlist in the Australian Army during the First World War. They find themselves deployed to the Ottoman Empire (now modern day Turkey), as part of the Allied Gallipoli Campaign in 1915.

The film starts as something of a buddy movie with some 80s-style artistry, but by the time the climactic battle scenes arrive, it is a story of the terrors of trench warfare. It also reinforces a common First World War theme of utter futility, with senior officers repeatedly ordering their troops to go “over the top” in charges met by murderous machine gun fire.

Gallipoli isn’t the best of the WWI movies, but it belongs on a list of “should watch” films about the war, including the classic All Quiet on the Western Front and the excellent Paths of Glory.

In terms of 20th century history, I relate more strongly to the Second World War than to the First, but that gap is closing as I learn more about the Great War during this period of centennial observation (1914-18). It is a fascinating historical story, one infused with a haunting sense of loss due to the brutality of trench warfare, as well as the knowledge that the terms of surrender eventually imposed on Germany would help to fuel the rise of Nazism in the decades to come.

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