Sunday, January 6, 2013

CRACKER? Fail Safe

               “Fail Safe” is a nuclear war movie released in 1964.  It was directed by Sidney Lumet (“The Hill”).  It is based on the novel by Eugene Burdrick and Harvey Wheeler.  Amazingly, it came out a few months after “Dr. Strangelove” and looks like the serious older brother to that film.  Because of this dynamic, “Fail Safe” was a box office failure as the public did not take it seriously.  Talk about bad timing for a good movie.  It did garner positive reviews.
                The title refers to the geographic point that nuclear bombers would be sent to await a “go code” to proceed to their targets in Russia.  An off-course air liner appearing on radar screens as a UFO triggers the order to go to the fail safe point.  Then a computer glitch sends a group of bombers on to Moscow.  Russian jamming prevents reception of abort orders.  Technology is out to kill us!  (By the way, the Soviets did not have this technology.)
                The rest of the movie jumps between claustrophobic locales. The White House underground bunker, the Pentagon war conference room, the SAC war room and a single bomber cockpit.  Fascinatingly scary decisions have to be made as the situation escalates.  Mad scientist Prof. Groeteschele (Walter Matthau) argues that we should seize this “opportunity” to win the Cold War.  60 million American deaths would be a fair price to pay.  His Dr. Strangelove imitation is not as funny as Seller’s.  He is voted down and the National Security Council advises the President (Henry Fonda) to order fighter jets to chase the bombers and shoot them down.  It’s a suicide mission and unlikely to succeed.  It sucks to be the President sometimes.  The buck stops here.
                As the last fighter radar blip disappears from the radar screen, the President calls the Russian Premier on the “hot line’ and has an awkward conversation.  The President’s translator (Larry Hagman) is the everyman thrust into the middle of nuclear insanity.  The President, being a bleeding heart liberal, sympathizes with the Communist leader and offers to help him shoot the American bombers down.  The Russians lift the jamming, but the well-trained American bomber pilots obediently disregard verbal orders to return.  In a very poignant exchange, even the last pilot’s wife cannot sway her husband.
                The bombers are followed on a big screen like an early video game (think “Missile Command”).  One by one they are splashed.  The tension builds.  You can tell by the close-ups of the characters’ faces.  The President tells the Premier that if Moscow is hit, the U.S. will sacrifice New York City.  Surprisingly, the First Lady is visiting.
                “Fail Safe” is a chilling depiction of hazards of reliance on technology in the nuclear age.  It is excellent in portraying how a crisis can escalate beyond imagination.  The movie is good for people who did not live through the Cold War to watch to get a perspective on what could have happened.  It will make you appreciate the less tense world we now live in now.  The movie should be viewed as a companion to "Dr. Strangelove”, but unlike moviegoers in 1964, it would be better to see this one first.
                The film is very good.  The acting is stellar.  Fonda is excellent as the President you would want to have in a crisis.  He is calm and weighs his decisions after input from his advisors.  He is a reasonable man and thank God the Soviet Premier is too.  Try to picture future Presidential candidates in his situation and vote accordingly. The rest of the cast is outstanding with Matthau and Hagman standing out. 
                Sidney Lumet’s direction is riveting.  The film was shot in stark black and white.  The interiors are confining and the close-ups add to the tension.  One weakness is the reliance on stock footage of the aircraft due to the Air Force’s refusal to cooperate with the production.  The USAF was offended by the suggestion that a mistake could lead to nuclear disaster.  It could not have been offended by the portrayal of the fighter and bomber pilots.  They basically committed suicide doing their duty.  An interesting feature of the film is there is no music which makes the pregnant pauses in the conversations even more compelling. Also, we do not hear the voice of the Soviet leader, making Hagman’s interpretation spellbinding.
                In conclusion, this is a must see movie.  If you prefer different actors, George Clooney did a word for word remake in 2000.  It was a live TV production!  Kudos, but the original is better.  Will it crack the 100 Best?  Possibly.

Grade =  A
                              the trailer

the full movie



  1. Interestingly, although the movie is anti-war, most of the USAF officers are portrayed sympathetically. The closest thing to a villain is the Matthau character, and one can sort of understand his point of view, even though few would agree with it. "Dr. Strangelove" is more cynical. Not one character in that movie was dealing with a full deck.

  2. Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I think I'd like it but hadn't heard of it.
    It's sad somtimes how good movies go unnoticed when they come out at the wrong time.

  3. Hi, In the late '70s I seen both Fail Safe and Strangelove as a double feature at my local cinema, as a result of Fail Safe being first up I have never really thought much of Strangelove. After having watched them a couple of times after that, I still haven't changed my opinion that Fail Safe was, and is, the far superior movie.

  4. Wow, what a double bill! And that was the best order to see them in to get the full effect of Strangelove, so I am a bit surprised you reacted that way. I can see where a person might not be in a laughing mood after seeing Fail Safe. I agree that Fail Safe is an excellent film, but I have to say that I think Strangelove is a masterpiece. Thanks for sharing.

  5. I just can't get into Strangelove after Fail Safe (which is part of my DVD collection, were as Strangelove isn't). Probably the characters are just so over the top/ridiculous compared to the generally great acting in Fail Safe that put me off.

  6. Understood. It reminds me of my feeling that "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" is a piece of crap where everyone else considers it to be a comedy masterpiece.

  7. Got to agree with you on that one.

  8. I'm in the opposite position: I can't get into Fail Safe and it might be because I saw Dr. Strangelove first. Fail Safe wants to be a serious movie but to me comes off as pretentious instead. Ridiculous science-fiction technology (such as a map that magically tracks the our bombers in real-time while deep in Soviet Airspace) and weird strawman characters (people who disagree with the President are portrayed as robots, losers, or worse) belie the supposedly serious theme of the movie. By contrast, the technology in Dr. Strangelove is plausible and down-to-earth, and the characters, while comically exaggerated, feel more authentic in their reaction to the situation as they understand it.

    Maybe I'm just sore at the President bombing New York. I don't think it would have helped the international situation and certainly wouldn't have gained any benefit worth the loss of the city. Certainly the Soviets wouldn't have done anything similar if the shoe were on the other foot. In any case, it's a good thing that Peter Fonda never ran for president because he would never have gotten my vote.

    1. I understand where you are coming from. I prefer to look at the movie as a companion to Dr. Strangelove. DS is just pure brilliance, but Fail Safe also shows the insanity of nuclear war and the "what if" scenario of an accidental start. My problem with nuking NYC is it is not the equivalent of Moscow. To truly even out the destruction of Moscow, Washington should have been chosen. If I'm the Soviets, I'm not accepting that deal. I agree the Soviets would not have done the same if the shoe was on the other foot, but I can definitely see a liberal President doing it. We weren't angels in the Cold War, but we certainly were the good guys.


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.