Update: I didn’t realize that John Wood who played Professor Stephen Falken had died recently. Kind of a cinematic father figure for a computer science girl like myself. He also did the voice of the WOPR computer. They had him say the lines in reverse so there would be no flow between them. I wish I could come up with a clever eulogy like they did for Dennis Ritchie, but a farewell will have to do.
I read Kevin Mitnick’s Ghost In The Wires, Mark Russinovich’s Zero Day: A Novel, and Daniel Suarez’s Daemon in the past few months so it seemed an appropriate time to revisit the original hacker film. Maybe not the first and maybe not the best, but it is the one that everyone remembers. On the off chance that you don’t know the password is ‘Joshua’ and how to answer the question, “Would you like to play a game?”, here is a plot summary.
The film begins with two men arriving for work at a missile silo. They settle in when a test missile launch comes in and they have to go through the motions of launching nuclear missiles at the USSR. The two men don’t know it’s only a test, so when one refuses to turn his key and kill millions of people, the other pulls his gun to force him to do it. Cut to NORAD where very important people are sitting down to discuss what can be done about all the men who refuse to turn their key. Isn’t the answer obvious? We need a powerful computer to take their place. Enter the WOPR!
That’s the War Operation Plan Response computer that plays an endless series of war games. They want to replace all the men with electronic relays and hook them into the WOPR. The president makes the decision and the WOPR does the rest. With the disaster waiting to happen in place we cut to a Seattle, Washington arcade.
In an arcade we are introduced to David the hacker who plays Galaga. The game is clearly chosen because it was a modern example of a game that people play over and over thinking they can win, but ultimately lose. He then goes to school and appears to be a smart ass in class by answering the teacher’s question, “Who first suggested the idea of reproduction without sex?” with “Your wife?” In reality, it’s a nice bit of social engineering to get sent to the little waiting room outside the principal’s office where they write down the passwords to the school’s computers.
Showing off to his new found girlfriend Jennifer (Ally Sheedy), he logs into the schools network and changes both of their grades. Now that we have seen David’s skillz he sets his sights on the game company Protovision in Sunnyvale, California. He needs to find their computers and engages in what has become known as war dialing.
He gets the area code and prefixes for Sunnyvale and begins dialing every possible number. Anytime he hits a number that responds like a computer, the program makes a note. This leaves David with a list of all the computers in Sunnyvale that are hooked up to the phone system. Then it’s just a matter of going through each one till he finds the unsuspecting game company. After finding a bank and Pan-Am, he finds a system that refuses to identify itself. However, when asked, “Help Games,” it responds with a definition. David then asks, “List Games,” and gets the ominous game list that builds from Falken’s Maze to Chess to Global Thermonuclear War.
It’s time to visit hacker friends who warn David that he has found something he should leave alone. They also tell him that he should look for a backdoor left by the designer of the system and to do so by going right through Falken’s Maze. This leads to a research montage that ends with the discovery of Professor Stephen Falken (John Wood) who created the WOPR learning computer and the secret password ‘Joshua’. Joshua was a son Falken lost at a young age causing him to deteriorate and die. Once David is into the computer, he tells it he wants to play ‘Global Thermonuclear War’.
At this point the computer, which is the WOPR, starts what appears to be a game to David, but is shown at NORAD as if it were the real thing. Panic at NORAD and hunting for David begins while these things happen:
Ultimately, we get David, Jennifer, and the still alive Professor Falken into a locked down NORAD where it appears the Soviets are attacking with everything they can. As smart as the WOPR computer is, it still believes what the people at NORAD do, that it’s possible to win a nuclear war. They convince the General in charge not to launch a counter-strike, but the WOPR computer tries to launch the nuclear missiles by itself. By making the computer play itself at tic-tac-toe we get the very dramatic learning sequence in the war room.
Thus, we come back to the picture at the start of this post and the point of the film. When it comes to nuclear war, the only winning move is not to play. This actually extends to anything where their is mutually assured destruction. You know, like the software patent wars going on right now.
I was born the same year this film came out so I caught just the last couple years of the Cold War. I can distinctly remember seeing this film played on TV during those years and it is right alongside with Dr. Strangelove for it’s depiction of Cold War nonsense. When the drums of war were beaten in the early 2000’s and we were marching toward the war in Iraq, I remembered this film and Falken’s question upon arriving at NORAD and viewing WOPR’s virtual war.
I was in an English class during the Winter of 2003 when people were talking about whether Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. The logic I heard was that if he has WMD’s than that is a reason to invade. I remember citing this film by using Falken’s argument, “General, do you really believe that the enemy would attack without provocation, using so many missiles, bombers and subs so that we would have no choice but to totally annihilate them?” If Saddam didn’t have WMD’s then why attack? If he does, then the one time he would use them would be under threat of annihilation. A threat we would be making if we were to invade. Therefore, any argument for invasion has to be different than whether Saddam has WMD’s or not. I wish people had listened like the General does when Falken says, “General, you are listening to a machine. Do the world a favor and don’t act like one.” Except people listened and did the world a disservice. Sorry, but it’s a lot of kids of my generation who died in Iraq and there is a Vietnam Wall style memorial in my city that reminds me of that fact every time I go by it.
Like every great hacker movie, it does somethings really right and other things really wrong. Remember I mentioned Kevin Mitnick at the start of this post. He is the single most notorious hacker of all time and at one point was accused of being able to whistle into a phone and launch a nuke from NORAD. Sound familiar? Of course, as he points out in his book, there were no lines that went into NORAD at that time. The place was sealed off. Another problem with the film is in the final sequences when the WOPR computer tries to figure out the nuclear launch codes. It determines them a character at a time. If you don’t already know this, passwords are either guessed correctly or not. There is no partially correct password. It’s this concept that security researcher Steve Gibson has turned into the great Password Haystacks. There are passwords that will be tried first like the film’s ‘pencil’ and ‘Joshua’, but if you make it ‘>+pencil(Joshua)$$$$$$$$$’ you have something that is more resistant to dictionary and brute force attacks. The point is the WOPR computer would have to try all the possible launch codes to find the right one, not figure it out a piece at a time.
What it does get right is David’s hacking. The use of the command prompt is probably the most touted, but it deserves attention for social engineering, his research on the target system, and of course war dialing. All four are still hallmarks of any good hacker. War dialing has changed a bit and can now come in the form of scanning ranges of IP Addresses for live targets and the similarly named war driving to look for wireless access points.
A final note, I actually have a film book that claims the arcade in this movie links it to cinemas roots in arcades. The book is wrong, it’s because the game he is playing is just like a nuclear war and tic-tac-toe. An exercise in futility where there is no winner (except the arcade owner who gets your money). That’s why there is the scene in the arcade.
I love this film because it makes sure I never forget Cold War insanity and everything that goes with it when people talk about WMDs and the War On Terror. In a happier way, it is the cinematic embodiment of the necessity of hacking. You find a mystery, you investigate, you figure it out, and you start to play with it. You find that understanding how things work can be dangerous, but remaining ignorant is what leads us blindly towards our destruction. Our ability to think is what separates us from the machine. But it isn’t free, we have to make a conscious effort. When someone tells you how it is, ask yourself, “But Does It Make Any Sense?”