Episode 8: Shall We Play A Game?

Welcome to Lies Agreed Upon. The podcast about Hollywood and history. 

I’m Lia Paradis.

And I’m Brian Crim. 

Think of the things we’ll be talking about today as the 1980s equivalent of the Kruschev-Nixon Kitchen debate. That was the moment in 1959 when the US made the tactical choice to fill its pavilion at the Moscow World’s Fair with consumer goods, like a perfect replica of the “modern American kitchen.” The Soviet Union had its military and industrial might on display. But average Russians were far more interested in the gadgets, labor saving devices, and gleaming amenities in the kitchen display than they were in rockets and engines. Kruschev tried to make fun of it as trivial and feminine. But the capitalist blow had been struck. Jump forward about 25 years and we’re at the next era when consumerism was overtly championed as a political component of the Cold War.  

A key player in that consumer culture was the modern teenager. On big screens and small, a pop culture machine worked hard to squeeze every last dollar out of white, middle class America by catering to their entertainment demands. In these years, a new generation of Westerners were reaching their teenage years: the children of the baby boomers. These kids had lots of freedom (baby boomers were notoriously self-involved). And the kids of middle-class baby boomers had big weekly allowances (forked over by guilty parents). So it’s no accident that media and technology targeted teenagers as consumers. 

As we said in our last episode, this was a moment in history when, for a brief moment, there was no war that any western powers were directly engaged with. And, as we discussed, this caused anxiety about whether the young were too soft to defend capitalism and democracy if the Evil Empire really did attack. 

Today, we’re also going to look at films that can be taken as cautionary tales about the dangers of teenagers (or young adults) who don’t take the Cold War seriously enough. This time, however, the focus is on the seemingly apolitical, irresponsible and anti-social nature of the modern, video game playing white, affluent American youth. Our more serious films are Wargames, from 1983, and Falcon and the Snowman, from 1985. But we’re going to throw in a little bit of The Last Starfighter and Ferris Bueller just to spice things up. They came out in 1984 and 1986, respectively. 

Along the way, we’ll be reminding our listeners about the rise of Atari and then Nintendo video games, and the arrival of the Commodore 64 home computer. We’ll also talk about the launch of MTV in 1981. This was followed by the trans-Atlantic, epic Live Aid concerts in 1985.  The same year brought the musicians’ campaign “Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City” which went along with anti-apartheid, divestment protests on university campuses . And by the end of the decade, Rock the Vote had been founded – to target young voters. And while all of our movies today star young actors who managed to steer clear of the Brat Pack label, we are going to bring in, even if it’s just briefly, a John Hughes movie. So, for listeners of a certain generation (namely ours), this episode will be a walk down memory lane.

So, what are the lies agreed upon for this episode? Well, one of the reasons for doing these episodes that are just steeped in the pop culture context of a moment is to remind our listeners that everything has a history. For many people, politics, economics, war, and diplomacy are what come to mind when we say “History”. And they are all legitimate things to focus on. But even though this podcast is about movies as historical texts, it’s still easy to fall back on thinking of culture as stuff that simply enhances our understanding of the ‘real’ history, instead of thinking of culture being important enough to study all on its own. So it’s not really a lie we want to refute, simply a mindset that we are always trying to shift. 

The 2nd lie, which really is a lie, is that the political youth of the 60s had given way to the Me Generation of the 70s and 80s. And there certainly were examples of that message on TV and in movies. Most memorably, from 1982 to 89, Alex P. Keaton – rabid Reagan Republican (played by Michael J Fox) – and his sister Mallory – clueless and materialistic (played by Justine Bateman) were the despair of their ex-hippy, crunchy granola parents on Family Ties. And on the big screen, in Risky Business, Joel Goodson, a rich boy and member of the Future Enterprisers of America, decides to run a brothel in his house to fund repairing the damage he’s done to his dad’s Porsche. But it’s all in good fun! And it really was – I loved that movie!

But throughout the last decade of the Cold War, there were also ways that youth in the West took up more altruistic political positions. And on a massive scale. We’ve already talked about the rise of anti-nuclear efforts. One of our movies today deals with that explicitly. But added to that were causes showing a growing awareness of global inequities, including the famine in Ethiopa and other parts of East Africa, and the apartheid regime in South Africa.  

Finally, we’ve talked in previous seasons about all the movies that came out in the 80s that critiqued American anti-democratic efforts undertaken in the name of democracy. The invasion of Grenada in 1981, and then the ongoing struggle between the Republican president and the Democratic Congress about CIA funding for the Contras in Nicaragua were the context for public interest in those films. And young people were part of that. 


So, let’s provide some cultural history context before we talk about our films. 

On August 1, 1981, MTV first aired – one of these new-fangled ‘cable’ networks that ran 24 hours a day. 

It began with an explicitly Cold War opening, tying rock and roll to America, democracy, and the West. Viewers saw a countdown of the launch of the Apollo moon mission and, after lift off, showed Armstrong and Aldren planting a flag on the moon – but it was a flag that said MTV. What followed was The Buggles “Video Killed the Radio Star”, Pat Benatar’s “You Better Run”, and then the Veejays explaining what MTV was all about. Treating teenaged interests – latest music releases and concert dates – like news. 

So why are we talking about this? Well, our movies today are all about the frivolity and  self-absorption of teenagers. The apolitical cluelessness of selfish and entitled young men (and the occasional woman), who see nothing wrong with breaking the law if they decide their own moral compass will allow it. And this was very much a common characterization of the MTV generation. Too busy playing video games to go outside and do something healthy in the fresh air! Too obsessed with their own comforts to understand the sacrifice of earlier generations! And, almost most importantly, the implication that these young people were too shallow to take seriously the existential threat of the Cold War and the ‘evil empire’. 

Reagan felt the need to remind the youth of America in 1983 that the youth of an earlier era understood this threat.

But at the same time, as we saw with the use of the moon landing to launch MTV, consumerism was being sold (excuse the pun) as the highest form of patriotic behavior that Americans could engage in. And the quintessential object of Cold War consumption was the personal computer, including the home video game console. Why? Because the personal computer was the perfect example of something that had developed as a Cold War technology, a military technology, that had now become a consumable good. 

In the 1950s, the USSR didn’t understand the model kitchen at the Moscow world’s fair was a weapon. And now, in the 1980s, the Commodore 64, the Atari and Nintendo consoles, were a similar stark reminder of the technological advances of the West, and the openness of Western society. 

So, in that context, lets look at our films.

War Games (1983) was directed by John Badham whose filmography definitely tells us that the Cold War commentary part of this movie was probably not its intent. After his breakout film, Saturday Night Fever, Badham directed light and fluffy 80s popcorn movies we associate with that decade, such as Short Circuit, and Stakeout. I’d like to give a recommendation here for Badham’s very first film – The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings, starring Richard Pryor, Billy Dee Williams and James Earl Jones, and produced by Barry Gordie of Motown fame. A totally crazy and funny movie. 

Anyway, back to War Games. It stars Matthew Broderick as David Lightman, a video game nerd. It also stars another of the brat pack – Ally Sheedy – as Broderick’s plucky girlfriend. 

David Lightman thinks he’s breaking into a video game company’s computer system to get early access to the latest video games before their official release. So, in essence, committing intellectual theft. But it’s Matthew Broderick! So we still think he’s a great kid and we’re rooting for him. 

The thing is, he’s actually accessed the W.O.P.R, War Operations Plan Response, a war games simulator used by the military. He accidentally sets in motion “Global Thermonuclear War” – a war game simulation. 

Dabney Coleman and John Wood are the adults: Coleman as the hawkish intelligence agency leader, McKittrick, who refuses to believe US high tech weaponry could be manipulated so easily by a kid. And John Wood as, Falken, the reclusive creator of the simulation. After the authorities realize Lightman is the source of the break in, they assume he’s a Soviet operative and they bring him to the NORAD bunker in Colorado. He can’t convince them he’s just a video game fan, and he also can’t convince them of what he’s figured out – that the simulation is still running and could trigger WWIII. So he escapes in order to find the game’s author, Professor Falken.

He and Jennifer (Ally Sheedy) find Falken and convince him what’s going on and that he must help. Notice that the message isn’t that young people need to be convinced how serious the Cold War is. It’s that young people need to convince the adults that the old Cold War calculus is immoral. 

Falken alerts NORAD, and they’re rushed back there. Falken convinces Barry Corbin, who’s at his cigar chomping, Texas cowboy best as the general who doesn’t like computers and thinks we should just be flying by the seat of our pants, NOT to respond to the simulation – to trust that it is, indeed just a simulation. “Mr Mckittrick, after careful consideration I’ve come to the conclusion that your new WOPR system sucks . . . “ Best line.

We’ve talked about Able Archer in previous episodes, and here we get that scenario playing out in reverse. With Able Archer, thankfully the USSR decided it just didn’t make sense that the West was launching a full-scale nuclear attack. Here, the logic is presented to the Americans by Falken. 

In the end, the game has to be shown the futility of the arms race. An endless number of games of Tic Tac Toe, finally prompts the computer to say, the only way to win the game is not to play. This same message is replicated in another film about accidental nuclear war – Crimson Tide. Denzel Washington as the younger sub captain debates Gene Hackman, the old school Cold Warrior. Denzel says in the nuclear age the true enemy is war itself.

But it all starts with a home computer. And that is a decidedly Cold War development. As are video games. So let’s take a little detour and remind our listeners about the Commodore 64, Atari, and Nintendo. 

The Commodore 64 was the first really reasonably priced home computer, intended for general use, not for experts. It was released in 1982 and dominated  30-40% of the PC market between 1983 and 1986. It was sold in retail stores, not just computer stores. And you could play games on it. 

But the birth of the video game happened much earlier, in the 50s, technically. But it was the Atari arcade game, Pong, that captured kids imaginations in 1972. By the early 80s, video games weren’t just in the arcade, they had found their way into people’s homes, but not on the computer. The games were cartridges, and Atari, Coleco and Mattel all had machines for home use. But the quality was so much worse than the arcade games that sales of the consoles had plummeted. 

But one of the things you could do with the Commodore 64 was play games, without a separate console. Here’s an early ad, and we can hear that children are specifically being targeted. I can imagine this ad playing on Saturday morning tv. 

So David Lightman’s willingness to do anything to get a hold of these new games is the result of both these things, the poor quality of console games in the early 80s, and the ability to play games on the new, reasonably priced, consumer grade home computers. In the Soviet Union, in the same period, only about ⅓ of large industry and utilities  were even networked to a computer, and the ministry in charge of developing computer technology didn’t think that computers in peoples’ homes was technology to prioritize. 

In 1984, the ban in the West on selling personal computers to the USSR was lifted, but only elites could afford them. So the lack of any home grown PC technology, as well as the realization in the West that home computers were a hugely effective cultural symbol of 1. free access to information, 2. the availability of technology intended for civilian and not military use, and 3. the affordability of that technology for Western families, must be understood as political subtext for all of the conspicuous consumption of 80s culture. David Lightman even has a computer in his bedroom – suggesting the family might have more than one. 

But Lightman also sees Global Thermonuclear War as a cool subject for a video game. Something to be taken lightly, totally disconnected from real life, and certainly not anything he has to worry about. Until he does. 

Here, the young people transform from apolitical entitled suburbanites into the saviors of the entire planet because they are smart, resourceful and ernest. All of the adults, from David’s parents to John Corbin’s good ol’boy general to Dabney Coleman’s weasely technocrat, to John Wood’s grieving but also self-indulgent Professor Falcon, are either stupid or jaded or so stuck in their ways they don’t see disaster staring them in the face. But David and Jennifer think anything is possible and try (and succeed) in saving the world. 


On the other hand, we also have the 2 young men in The Falcon and the Snowman, starring Timothy Hutton and Sean Penn. Paired again, after Taps, here they are a bit older, and definitely less likable. Based on a true story from the 1970s, the film was directed by John Schlesinger, whose film Midnight Cowboy, won him a Best Director Oscar and won Best Picture. He also directed, Billy Liar, Darling, and Marathon Man. 

Hutton plays Christopher Boyce, an aimless and wealthy young man from Orange County, CA. His father, a former FBI official played by the always great Pat Hingle, uses his connections to get Christopher a job with a defense contractor who receives and transmits secret communiqués for their clients, who include the CIA. 

In his high security clearance job, Boyce becomes disillusioned with America and its actions in the name of Cold War security. The catalyst is a communique that spells out how the CIA has manipulated the political scene in Australia to ensure the failure of the democratically elected government of the democratic socialist party there. 

Despite the fact that he’s signed a security agreement, Boyce asks his childhood friend, Daulton, to approach the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City, and offer to sell them whatever useful information Boyce comes upon as he receives and transmits. A small hitch is that Daulton, played brilliantly by Sean Penn, is a drug dealer and addict. 

Initially, he doesn’t want to do it, saying he might be a drug dealer but he’s a patriot. But after he’s arrested, he decides that jumping bail and fleeing to Mexico is a good idea, and that selling secrets will provide him with an income. 

Over time, Boyce passes material to Daulton, who delivers it to Alex, a Soviet operative at the Embassy, played by David Suchet. But Boyce gets discouraged, feeling that the Soviet agent and the government he represents is as dishonorable as the US and their operatives. And Daulton gets careless because of his worsening heroin addictions. He wants to expand the opportunity to make money from secrets to drugs. Boyce wants out, but Daulton wants more. Meanwhile, Alex is getting impatient with both of them. 

Eventually, Daulton is arrested by the Mexican police and they try to frame him for a murder. He refuses to admit to the murder and eventually he’s give the choice of extradition to the US or to the USSR. As soon as he crosses the border back into the US, he’s picked up by marshalls. Boyce, who’s been increasingly feeling like he’s being watched, is also finally arrested. 

Under interrogation, Boyce describes what motivated him to betray his country. Let’s listen to that: 

Both men are convicted. Boyce is sentences to 40 years and Daulton to life.

Film critic Roger Ebert said the movie “succeeds, in an admirably matter-of-fact way, in showing us exactly how these two young men got in way over their heads. This is a movie about spies, but it is not a thriller in any routine sense of the word. It’s just the meticulously observant record of how naiveté, inexperience, misplaced idealism and greed led to one of the most peculiar cases of treason in American history.”

And that’s part of the point in including this movie here. One of the key components of this movie is how casually the men think about their loyalty to their country, and how they sell secrets with no thought to the damage it might do. Daulton is looking at espionage as simply another illegal way to get money, a side hustle to his drug business or, maybe, the drugs become the side hustle to the espionage. It doesn’t really matter. 

And although Boyce eloquently sets out his disillusionment for his FBI interrogators, as Hutton plays him, the motivation is as much petulance as anything else. Boyce is angry that he can’t find something to give his life meaning. He left the seminary because that didn’t do it for him. He got the high security job because he thought that would make him special, but it ends up being a glorified boondoggle – he and his coworkers in “the vault” spend their days goofing off, drinking, and being bored. 

So in this instance, the 80s commentary on unmotivated, weak youths who can’t be trusted to defend the nation against the communist threat, seems to be right on track. This might be a real story from the 70s, but the casual drug use and the entitlement seem to be a pretty good companion to other movies and books from the 80s, most notably Jay McInerney’s book, Bright Lights, Big City, that was made into a movie starring Michael J. Fox, Alex P. Keaton himself. 


But here’s a counter-narrative of the era. Remember our 2nd lie –  that all the teen and and young adult culture of the 70s and 80s was selfish and shallow. The Falcon and the Snowman certainly reinforces that, and so does War Games, at least in who these kids are when the movie starts. But when called upon to act, they do. 

We opened with the first minutes of MTV in 1981. But by 1985, MTV was broadcasting the Live Aid concerts in Wembley, London, and in Philadelphia. The project was spearheaded by, of all things, a rock and roll artist. Bob Geldof’s his initial effort was to record a Christmas single and donate all the profits to famine relief in Ethiopia. It was so successful that it became something much bigger. On July 13th, 16 hours of musical performances took place in the 2 locations, simultaneously. Sure, it was a telethon, but Jerry Lewis was nowhere to be found. Instead, it was an incredibly ambitious undertaking. And Phil Collins even performed at Wembley and then got on the Concorde and arrived in Philadelphia in time to perform there, as well. The glitches, which inevitably occurred, just served to remind everyone that this was going down live!

Depending on how its measured, Live Aid raised between 125 and 175 million dollars for African famine relief.

And that idea of a new generation of politically aware and active musicians and music lovers was expanded on by the creation of Artists against Apartheid by Steven Van Zandt, of E Street Band fame, and fellow musician Art Baker, and the release of the song, Sun City, calling for a cultural boycott of South Africa. This helped to mainstream the anti-apartheid movement around the world.

The regime in South Africa had been consistently supported by Western powers as part of the Cold War calculus. The African National Congress was seen as a socialist organization and, therefore, in typical Cold War fashion, more of a danger than apartheid was. But as a result of the success of Live Aid, the actions of Artists United Against Apartheid, and the support of MTV in publicizing all of these things, universities around the US were successfully pressured into divesting of South African holdings. And other anti-apartheid boycotts took hold. 

Finally, not to leave MTV too quickly, by 1990, they had thrown their might behind electoral politics in the US by partnering with Rock the Vote, a new organization dedicated to increasing voter turnout among young people. Here’s a couple of early ads, with Chris Cornell, and Lenny Kravitz.

And before we finally stop talking about MTV, it’s worth revisiting our first lie, which is basically just a reminder that what we’re always about here at Lies Agreed Upon is emphasizing that everything, including pop culture, has a history. And that culture is a driver of history just as much as diplomacy, or economics.


So why did we say at the top that we were including The Last Starfigher and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in the mix here? Well, The Last Starfighter might actually be the most direct critique of the 80s spoiled, affluent teen trope of any film of the era. It came out in 1984, starring Lance Guest and the late, great Robert Preston. And, as maybe the best piece of trivia I’ve come upon yet in doing this podcast, I discovered that the guy who directed The Last Starfighter, Nicholas Charles Castle, played Michael Myers in the Halloween films. 

Anyway, back to Starfighter. It’s about a very poor young man who lives in a trailer park and plays the one arcade game available to him with such devotion that he achieves the high point score. Note that there’s no Commodore 64 for him. He’s too poor. His life, and the cartoon tone of the whole movie, goes totally against the grain of most of the earnest 80s teen movies. What he didn’t realize is that the arcade game he got so good at was actually an inter-galactic recruiting tool, intended to identify possible new fighters for a stellar war against a totalitarian force. Sound like it might be an allegory for something? 

You’re right! So our young man, seemingly just a lazy kid who spends too much time playing video games, is actually the savior of the galaxy precisely BECAUSE he plays video games. So the message of the film seems to be, Watch out, Evil Empire! The youth of America can still kick your butt. 

And why Ferris Bueller? Well, why not? No, seriously, we wanted to give a nod to Matthew Broderick’s other teen movie – quite possibly a masterpiece and certainly a classic – for a couple of reasons. First, it’s a John Hughes film and we couldn’t go through these two episodes about teen movies of the 1980s without including one of his. And also because if you look at it a certain way, other than the fancy car that gets destroyed (what is it with these expensive cars?), Ferris Bueller can actually be read as a repudiation of the very unrealistic affluence represented in much of 80s culture. What Ferris does on his Day Off  is enjoy human interaction, art, a baseball game, and his friendships. He’s very decidedly NOT in front of a computer or a video game. He is still pretty good with a computer though, changing his absences the same way David changed grades in Wargames.

And what he seems to be most famous for (even if his sister hates him for it) is his appreciation of other people and his desire to make other people happy. And unlike in Risky Business, capitalism doesn’t offer an answer in this movie for the destroyed car. Ferris and his friends don’t open a brothel to try and pay for it. But what we do see, particularly in the iconic parade sequence, is a glorification of the power of popular culture in two forms – a parade and the Beatles – to bring people together. Neither of which could be enjoyed by the average Russian. 

So that’s it for teenagers of the 80s. We hope you enjoyed reminiscing with us. Our next and final episode of the season will span many decades and 3 films. But only one man: Bond, James Bond. We hope you join us.

Published by Brian E. Crim

Brian Crim is professor of history at the University of Lynchburg and author of Planet Auschwitz: Holocaust Representation in Science Fiction and Horror Film and Television. Other books include Our Germans: Project Paperclip and the National Security State and Antisemitism in the German Military Community and the Jewish Response, 1914-1938.

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