The Spy Who Played Atari: Cloak and Dagger

Clever, fearless, and determined, David Osborne has all the qualities he needs to become a master spy like his mentor, Jack Flack. The problem is, right now he’s still only 11, Jack Flack is a character in a game, and having to take public transportation everywhere doesn’t make for the smoothest escapes. But Davey is not without resources. He’s armed with not only a bus pass but also helpful friends, state of the art walkie talkies, and plenty of practice playing a spy in tabletop RPGs. So when he stumbles across a plot to smuggle top secret documents inside video game cartridges—and no one believes him—Davey knows it’s up to him to make sure that this vital information doesn’t fall into nefarious hands.

There’s no denying that this movie is full of cheese, highly improbable situations, and a noticeable absence of logic. It’s the kind of movie where you wonder if the bad guys can aim at all and why no one notices the little boy talking to himself. It even manages to use the cell phone trope several years before cell phones were in common usage!

Still, Cloak and Dagger also has seriously awesome moments, a decent plot, and the kind of tension one looks for in a spy movie—even if the drama and violence is tempered quite a bit out of respect for its youthful target audience. The tone of the movie is perhaps best represented by the chase scene in which Davey escapes his captors by commandeering a boxy 1980s era sedan—and subsequently smashes it into just about every wall, pole, and parked car on his way out of the parking garage. Yet none of this is played only for laughs; Davey has just spent several hours in the trunk with the body of a dead friend.

The bad guys may be laughably incompetent at times, but they were realistic and menacing enough to scare me when I was younger—in no small part due to the high body count for a children’s movie. And while Davey’s series of triumphs against adults with guns is unrealistic, Cloak and Dagger never manages to forget that he is still a child. His actions and solutions—from hesitating at stealing a game cartridge (to use as a decoy) to telling security guards that the spies are his parents (so the guards will detain the spies)—all match his age rather than expecting him to pretend he is an adult.

The characters in Cloak and Dagger aren’t nuanced, but they manage to have personality and even—on rare occasions—defy expectations. The masterminds of the game cartridge plot are not who you might expect at first, making the spies are all the more creepy because of it. Even Kim, the eight year old neighbor who plays the part of the damsel in distress, demonstrates wit and courage. She may not step outside the typically feminine role given to her, but she does manage to have one of my favorite lines of the entire movie; when her mother questions why she and Davey are friends, Kim replies “…he’s the only boy in the neighborhood that isn’t boring.” Which pretty much sums up my own feelings towards Cloak and Dagger and all of the other “boy” adventure films of the era, from Goonies to Shipwrecked, and everything in between.

“I don’t want to play anymore!”

It’s tempting to say that Cloak and Dagger is about growing up and leaving the games of childhood behind. The casualties of the movie include not only Davey’s willingness to play with the imaginary Jack Flack, but also the life of Davey’s adult friend Morris, a stereotypical gamer from a time when that term meant Dungeons and Dragons rather than first-person shooters. While Morris encourages Davey and Kim in their antics, Davey’s father, a straight-laced military man, instead lectures his son about personal responsibility. Only one of these two men arrives in the nick of time to save Davey and foil the spies—and it’s not the one who owns a gaming store.

But children often learn different lessons than grown-ups intend; even if Cloak and Dagger is meant to be about the responsibilities of growing up, children don’t necessarily see it that way. It wasn’t until watching the movie as an adult that it became obvious to me that the similarity between Jack Flack and Davey’s father, both played by Dabney Coleman, is statement on Davey’s grief and isolation following his mother’s death—and that the writers may not have seen Davey’s games as a healthy way of dealing with either. Instead, as an eight year old, I saw the whole story rather more literally.

The strongest parts of Cloak and Dagger aren’t the ones that argue that play is something to be left behind as we grow. Davey’s descent into—and return from—his fantasy world is a much stronger story when it’s about children’s need to to be able to go visit the place where the wild things are every once in awhile. In much the same way that Max’s room in Where the Wild Things Are grows into a forest (and back again), the spy caper that Davey finds himself in literally crashes into his home—without any deliberate action on his part. For both boys, their fantasy worlds are not just places they travel to, but also aspects of their emotional lives made manifest. When Max becomes king of the wild things, it’s important that he has a chance to revel in being a wild thing himself and take on the role of his mother. Likewise, falling into a real, live spy caper doesn’t just allow Davey to immerse himself in his game, it also gives him reason to become his father and chide Jack Flack for being irresponsible. More importantly, it creates an opportunity for Davey’s father to step up and become the mentor figure his son needs.

These role reversals aren’t really about becoming an adult. They are about being a child, and what it means to have emotions that you can’t fully verbalize. Davey’s games are not a way to avoid his problems, they are the tool he uses to work through them. I don’t know what message the filmmakers expected the child that I was to take away from Cloak and Dagger in 1984, but the one I learned was: games and play aren’t just fun, they’re important as well.

Jenny Kristine is the youth specialist for a small library in California. She firmly believes that everyone needs play and that Morris’ walkie talkies were totally rad.


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