IT WAS HOWARD HAWKS who once famously said that a good movie is three or four great scenes and no bad ones, perhaps the most cogent assessment of the medium as was ever committed to posterity. Screenwriters should take note. In his great book “Adventures in Screenwriting,” William Goldman tells us that what kick started “Harper” into production was the opening scene in which Paul Newman’s titular character, hungover and nearly penniless, reuses the coffee grounds from the trash. Show, don’t tell, they say. That one deft stroke, combined with Newman’s hangdog acting, showed and said everything you needed to know about Harper.
One of my favorite scenes in any movie occurs in “WarGames,” directed by Hollywood pro John Badham. That sounds like a backhanded complement but it’s not. Badham, Ted Ketchoff, Joseph Sergeant, John Avildsen … these are directors of little reputation who made such great films as “Saturday Night Fever,” “Wake in Fright,” “The Taking of Pelham 123” and “Joe,” among many others. Like Michael Curtiz, they could take a good script and make it great.
So back to the script and this scene. “WarGames” was a timely anti-nuke movie very much of its age, released just before Glasnost, written by Lawrence Lasker and William F. Parkes. In the mathematical equation of a feature script, this scene is nothing but exposition, getting Matthew Broderick (and Ally Sheedy there in the back) into the computer program that nearly starts World War III. But as written by Lasker and Parkes, and acted by the great Maury Chaykin and Eddie Deezen, it’s one of the three or four great scenes in a movie with no bad ones.
In just over two minutes, we learn a computer trick we probably didn’t know about; learn how Broderick’s character can play the games he covets; and see a real, honest-to-goodness relationship between two very smart, socially challenged people who have become friends because they work together and share an interest.
This is streaming on Amazon Prime and I turned it on the other day just to see this scene. I ended up watching the whole thing again. Any screenwriter struggling through a script would do well to watch it, as well. And I still quote this scene in my day-to-day life, even if just internally.
“Remember how you asked me to tell you when you’re acting rude and insensitively …”