Dabney Coleman vs. Video Games

When praising our current Movie of the Month, the hyperviolent children’s adventure pic Cloak & Dagger, there’s plenty of flashy details that distract from the novelty of the casting. The film’s cultural relic function as a desperate attempt to rescue Atari from the video game crash of 1983, its incongruous clash of boys’ adventurism spirit & cruel depictions of 80s action-violence, and its whimsical flights of escapist fantasy all overwhelm minor concerns with the details of its casting. The cast is such an afterthought, in fact, that no one thought twice about featuring Henry Thomas in the lead role, despite his face being on every cartridge of the E.T. video game that helped nearly bankrupt the company the year before. Thomas’s association with “the worst video game of all time” isn’t even the strangest novelty in the film’s casting. That honor belongs to That Guy! character actor Dabney Coleman, who’s cast in dual roles (!!) as the boy’s father & imaginary friend. As Henry Thomas’s dad, Coleman is a straight-laced family man widower doing his best to keep his home in order. As his imaginary friend Jack Flack, he’s a James Bond-type world adventurer, prepared at a moment’s notice to take out an entire warring country using only his American fists. Both roles are used in the film to teach Thomas a lesson about the dangers of escapist fantasy – the dad in stern talks about what true heroism looks like in the real world and Jack Flack in placing the boy in danger through his reality-detached fearlessness. As if this dual-role lesson about the fantasy-life dangers of video games & RPGs weren’t enough of a novelty alone, Coleman’s casting feels like a bizarre choice because of its echoing of a role he played exactly one year earlier, in what’s likely the most beloved alarmist anti-video game screed of all time.

Dabney Coleman’s role in the 1983 Cold War thriller WarGames feels like a perfect synthesis of his two roles in Cloak & Dagger. With his hair dyed unnaturally black like Jack Flack’s, Coleman plays a no-nonsense military man who both has no time for the fantasies of teenage gaming culture and lives the unreal international espionage lifestyle that’s exaggerated for comic effect in Flack. Coleman’s performance in WarGames is such a perfect midpoint between his two characters in Cloak & Dagger that the film feels more like an audition reel than it does like inspirational source material. He’s even called on to give Matthew Broderick’s teen protagonist a stern fatherly talking to about the dangers of video game fantasy, despite not being the boy’s father. In Cloak & Dagger, he’s right to warn his son about losing touch with reality in his roleplay gaming fantasies, but misses the larger point of how RPG’s & video games could be useful as a bonding tool with the lonely, grieving boy. In WarGames he’s right to update military procedure with computer programming automation, but misses the larger point of how video gameplay & gamesmanship logic are useful in war strategy – particularly in stalemate conflicts like The Cold War. As often happens with character actors, all three roles between these two films feel like different variations on the same archetype, and it’s funny that both of these Beware the Video Game movies thought to cast Coleman as their browbeating fuddy-duddies. As Cloak & Dagger is the more eccentric, over-the-top work, it plays almost like a parody of his grounded (even if archetypal) performance in WarGames. Both films’ paralleled arrival (along with their accompanying Atari game tie-ins) at the exact time the video game industry crashed only make comparing the two films all the more appealing; Colema’s casting in both projects is the perfect excuse to oblige.

Objectively speaking, WarGames is likely a superior film to Cloak & Dagger, but I’m not sure that quality craftsmanship is what I’m looking for in an 80s relic about how video game fantasy can put real lives at risk. A pre-fame Matthew Broderick & Ally Sheedy star as teen brats who hope to hack into a video game company’s unreleased titles, but instead mistakingly access a military supercomputer that nearly instigates WWIII. It’s the same video game fantasy leading to life-threatening danger premise of Cloak & Dagger, except in this case the danger is global instead of purely personal. As the teens play with real-life nuclear weapons as if they were toys, the tension between harmless bedroom fun & dead-serious war room retaliation says a lot about the automation, abstraction, and depersonalization of war (which has only gotten more intense in the last 35 years). At the same time, that abstraction & depersonalization makes its actual stakes feel almost too distanced to fully hit home, as opposed to the more hands-on dangers of video game fantasy in Cloak & Dagger. The conflict of a hacked, haywire computer nearly triggering nuclear war is truer to life than a boy’s imaginary friend landing him in a deadly game of international espionage, but there’s still something more affecting about watching a grown man pull a knife on an E.T.-era Henry Thomas or threaten to shoot out the child’s kneecaps “just to watch him bleed.” WarGames’s video game alarmism is also cleverer than Cloak & Dagger’s in the way it makes the video game itself a deranged character threatening death & destruction; in Cloak & Dagger the cartridge everyone is after is more or less a MacGuffin. Clever or not, I still find myself more drawn to the over-the-top, cartoonish antics of Cloak & Dagger (especially when they clash with brutal child-threatening violence), and the difference between the two films’ aesthetics is perfectly summarized by Coleman’s cartoonish performance of Jack Flack therein.

You don’t have to squint too hard to see the similarities between WarGames and Cloak & Dagger: two alarmist thrillers about the dangers of video games that arrived just when their subject’s industry was crashing, but were developed as Atari games anyway. Dabney Coleman’s casting as three characters across these two movies only helps further illustrate both the already apparent parallels between them and the difference in their respective tones. WarGames, as the more tonally sober war thriller, won out in the long run in both respect & notoriety, but the much sillier Cloak & Dagger deserves even more respect for its willingness to go for the jugular in ways you might not expect – especially considering how silly Coleman is in the Jack Flack persona.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the hyperviolent children’s action-adventure Cloak & Dagger (1984), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our comparison to another alarmist 80s roleplay gaming thriller Mazes & Monsters, and last week’s look at the death of Atari.

-Brandon Ledet

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