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It is 1964 and the Cold War is raging. If the US military's Strategic
Command spots any unidentified object in the skies, American nuclear
are ordered to a series of 'Fail-Safe' points. Unless they receive the
stand-down command, the aircraft will head for target cities in the Soviet
Union. Once beyond the Fail-Safe Point, and locked onto their targets,
bombers cannot be recalled. Crews are trained to disregard all signals,
whether they be commands or entreaties, and continue on their mission.
After all, any plea to turn back may be soviet subterfuge. This perverse
logic of nuclear warfare, as one pilot puts it, "eliminates the personal
The film conjectures what might happen if the system buckles. Suppose a technical mishap allows a bomber group to stray beyond Fail-Safe. Would the soviets accept the anguished apologies of an American president? Or would they regard it as a treacherous trick? Should human beings place everything they hold dear at the mercy of electronic systems? What if the rationale of nuclear strategy parts company with human logic?
Made less than two years after the Cuba Missile Crisis, "Fail-Safe" is clearly very heavily affected by that trauma and what it revealed to us all. We see a decent American President in the bizarre context of a nuclear showdown. Cut off from the society he knows and understands, the president is locked deep in some claustrophobic bunker, his only real human contact being the 'enemy' soviet premier. The American is wise and morally sound, and equal to the emergency. His Russian counterpart is emotional and unpredictable, but rises above his indoctrination to attain real dignity when the chips are down. Another of the Cold War insanities is played out - these two foes will spend the last hours of life on Planet Earth locked together psychologically, far from their loved ones.
Henry Fonda is first-class as the president. He brings authority and dignity to the part, exuding Ivy League self-assurance. Larry Hagman plays Buck, the translator from Russian into English, who spends the crisis in the bunker at the president's side. A moment's thought would convince any intelligent viewer that huge liberties are being taken with the truth. In reality, the president would have a team of advisers around him throughout (as indeed Kennedy did during October 1962). There would be phalanxes of interpreters listening in, to insure against even the tiniest mistranslation, and whole companies of psychologists to gauge every nuance of the Russian leader's mood. However, for clarity and dramatic power, the film has the president relying solely on the nervous young Buck. Simultaneous translation is a good dramatic device, because it avoids the distraction of subtitles or the absurdity of a Russian leader speaking fluent English.
Walter Matthau, against type, plays a heartless nuclear expert. Professor Groeteschieler advises the Pentagon top brass on nuclear strategy. He is a ruthless cynic who represents the Barry Goldwater end of the spectrum, and Matthau acts the part consummately well.
Sidney Lumet is one of the great directors, and his stylistic signature is apparent all through this fine film. From the very start, our peace of mind is stripped from us. We see a bull dying in the bullring, and the film's title is flashed up almost subliminally. These broken, discordant images place us immediately in a world of troubled dreams where no comfort is to be had. The American pilots look more like robots than men, in their heavy facemasks which amplify their breathing - or is it fear which creates that rasping edge to their inhalations? When the order to proceed beyond Fail-Safe flashes up in the cockpit, the pilots look at it in motionless silence, their very stillness conveying the tragedy in all its emotional power.
In "Twelve Angry Men" Lumet cast Henry Fonda as the voice of America's liberal conscience beset by the darker forces of the human psyche. Part at least of that film's artistic success is attributable to Lumet's skilful use of lenses in order to flatten the image and intensify the claustrophobia of the jury room. Here, the director employs similar visual techniques to heighten the dramatic experience. With his director of photography, Gerald Hirschfield, he employs chiaroscuro lighting and extreme close-up to amplify the tension of the final minutes, and even shoots Fonda through a fish-eye lens to impart a sense of psychological dislocation.
By a process that is itself logical, nuclear confrontation brings us to insane conclusions. Once both sides comprehend what is happening, they co-operate fully, sharing military secrets, as the humans unite against their mortal enemy, The Bomb. General Bogan (Frank Overton), America's Cold Warrior, is distraught when the Russian missiles fail to destroy American aircraft. Finally, we have the absurdity of an American bomber circling over New York, preparing to destroy five million American lives at the president's command. Life must go on, so plans are drawn up to rescue not people, but the commercial records of American companies from the debris of the metropolis.
Colonel Black (Dan O'Herlihy) is the keeper of the liberal flame. By a cruel irony, he becomes Death itself, and his tragedy is the tragedy of progressive thought. The 'hotline', established post-Cuba, is used very effectively in this film. Shot in exaggerated perspective, the phoneset dwarfs the president, symbolising the way in which the technological behemoth has swamped human decency. In a grimly powerful coup de cinema, the president hears his ambassador's phone melting and knows that the worst has happened. "No human being did wrong," says the Russian premier, as disaster darkens the earth. The American leader counters with, "We let our machines get out of hand." And there, in a nutshell, is the moral of the film.
That's the biggest moral dilemma this movie puts in front of its characters.
It falls to the President (ably played by Henry Fonda) to make the agonizing
decision of how to handle the situation without causing a global
From the Soviet point of view, here's what happens. The hot line in Moscow rings. The premier picks it up to hear the American president explaining that three unstoppable bombers are on their way to obliterate Moscow. Oh, but it was an accident. We didn't mean to send them out, sorry. And we can't call them back, because they're beyond their fail safe position (and thus are trained to maintain complete radio silence and ignore any communication they may receive), and we can't shoot them down because they're way out of our range. Sorry. Our bad.
The pacing of the movie moves from a calm, cool tone while various media figures are shown around the facility in charge of all the bombers. Then it picks up a tiny bit as the facility detects a bogie over Hudson Bay. And this is where the situation begins that eventually leads to the erroneous deployment of a nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. Although it seems small at the time, this is the metaphorical horseshoe nail that loses the kingdom. ("For want of a nail....") From this point, the movie steadily increases the suspence as progressively more drastic measures are taken in the effort to stop these bombers, with the situation growing more desperate by the moment. I started out firmly positioned on my seat, but by the end I had moved further and further forward towards the edge of my seat until eventually I couldn't even sit still. Too much suspense.
There are quite a lot of technical errors in the film (for instance, due to the Air Force refusing to assist in the film, they had to resort to a fairly limited set of stock footage for the shots of aircraft, which are thus extremely inaccurate) but it remains a good movie. If you can ignore the errors in set design and stock footage and concentrate instead on the dialog (which is where the action is anyway), watching people rise to the challenge or snap under the pressure, this is a movie you will never, ever forget.
I mentioned in another comment about a series of movies made during the
mid-1960's, that I call 'political noir'.
These films are easy to spot, in that there were made in B&W, dealt with a American institutional crisis and seemed to always feature Henry Fonda somewhere in the cast.
On all three counts, this film fits that criteria.
Because this film came out around the time of "Dr Strangelove", it was somewhat overshadowed, and because of the nearly identical plots, there was even talk of plagiarism, even though this film was based on a novel by two Washington-based journalists with a remarkable insight of the workings of government and was directed by Sidney Lument, one of the cinema's great directors.
Also, unlike "Dr Strangelove", which seemed to receive major studio backing, money and the freedom offered by being produced in Great Britain where this satire was more appreciated, "Fail-Safe" was independently produced in New York on a limited budget, without official backing by the Defense Department, which explains all of the flaws complained of by many viewers and posters on this site.
Yet in spite of these limitations, Lument pulls off a major coup by presenting us with an authentic piece of Armeggeddon.
In a real-time view, we watch as a million-to-one technical fault 'orders' a wing of American bombers to attack Soviet Russia, and the Defense Department and the President are helpless in trying to stop it.
We are also witness to how our military operates, trying to plan military policy, and debating theory and possible results.
Such things are sensible and harmless as far as these things go, until 'the day comes' when reality displaces theory.
Walter Matthau, who is more well-known for his comic talents ("The Odd Couple", "Grumpy Old Men"), than being an accomplished dramatic actor, is shown at the height of his powers as Prof. Groteschelle; a defense policy wonk, whose obsession with defense preparedness and Marxist theory reaches the point of detachment from human emotion, as he blindly recommends that no action be taken and the bombers be allowed to complete their mission, resulting in 'final victory' over Communism.
This is in direct contradiction to General Black, a compassionate Air Force officer who is also an intellectual, who desperately urges that every means be made to stop the bombers before it is too late.
However, it turns out to be too late, at least on the American side.
We watch how technology becomes a hindrance, as much as the distrust between the two superpowers seems to be, as the President and the Soviet Premier desperately try to seek a solution to this disaster.
The tragedy about this is that someone thought they should remake this in 2000, which in a way is flattering but certainly could not come close to the original work.
But, this only proves that the subject of 'accidental war' is still a concern.
However, how can one do better than Henry Fonda ???
I was thoroughly in suspense throughout this magnificent film. I almost felt as if I was watching World War III unfurl like the Gulf War did on CNN, it was that convincing. Fonda as the President and Matthau as the Professor, in truly memorable performances, are superb in their roles and indeed the entire cast is strongly competent. Besides the unforgettable ending, by way of the President's unthinkable concession, are the arguments and attitudes of the Professor and Colonel Cascio. At the time it must have been very tempting to many hawks in Cold War administrations to end the deadlock whenever a seemingly decisive opening presented itself. I strongly recommend this film for its believablity and realism and even the final credits! 10/10.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The neglect of this masterly Doomsday film is generally attributed to the fact that it came out at the wrong time, shortly after the appearance of Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove" which somehow caught the viewing public's imagination far more. I find this one of cinema's greatest tragedies preferring in every way the dark seriousness of Lumet's apocalyptic nightmare to the black comedy of Kubrick's vision which somehow trivialises the subject matter. It seems to have been Lumet's lot never to have quite reaped the critical acclaim accorded to several American directors every bit as worthy such as Kazan, Kubrick and Scorcese or even lesser figures such as Ray, Coppola and Spielberg. Incomprehensible when one considers a prolific body of work that includes films as fine as "Twelve Angry Men", "A Long Day's Journey Into Night", "Fail-Safe" and "Equus" to name but a few, always purposeful and seldom less than engrossing. I wondered how "Fail-Safe", made at the height of the Cold War and very much a film of its time, would stand up to viewing today and can only say, with the delight that rediscovery sometimes brings, that I found it every bit as shattering as when it appeared in those uneasy mid-'sixties. The thing I found so remarkable is its savage attack on the paranoia that fanned the Cold War, not just on the Soviet side but on the American as well. Indeed, by making the Walter Matthau figure a mouthpiece for U.S. political bigotry, Lumet leaves us in little doubt of the States' equal culpability in aggravating a situation nothing short of lunacy. It must have been an extremely bold and brave statement to make in those crazy days. The power of "Fail-Safe" lies in the fact that it never resorts to frill. No music punctuates the action. It is filmed in a particularly dark and sombre monochrome. The settings, apart from an expansive control room, are often in claustrophobic bunker-like rooms and plane cockpits. As with the American war film genre this is a male dominated society with romantic interest completely absent. There are only the bare bones of a plot to focus on but a plot so diabolical in its implications that nothing more is needed. It seems there is nothing science or even human psychology can do to prevent an American warplane from detonating nuclear warheads over Moscow. In order to possibly circumvent a tit for tat helter-skelter ride to world annihilation the U.S. President, brilliantly played by Henry Fonda, is forced to contemplate an order to sacrifice New York as a sign to the adversary that the initial American strike was the result of system failure rather than premeditated. Possably only an actor of Fonda's stature could have conveyed so convincingly the strength of supreme statesmanship. What an irony that it was left to a second rate actor to actually make it in the real world!
I have watched "Fail-Safe" more than once and consider it to be a
classic film which shows the anxiety and fear which we faced with the
Cuban missile crisis of 1962. The cast is top notch, Dan O'Herlihy,
Henr Fonda, Frank Overton, Walter Matthau, and all the other fine
performers. In comparison to "Dr. Strangelove, which I have also seen
repeatedly, I must say that the main reason for my enjoyment of that
dark comedy is the performance of Peter Sellers, as the Nazi scientist
who is still devoted to the fuhrer; while in "Fail-Safe" I am involved
throughout the film. It resembles a documentary and, interestingly, in
some ways reflects Stanley Kubrick's tone in the "Paths of Glory",
which I consider to be his greatest film.
Sidney Lumet direction is superb, maybe even excelling his direction in "Twelve Angry Men". I consider "Fail-Safe" as a thoughtful anti-war film in the company of "All Quiet on the Western Front and "The Paths of Glory". I recommend this fine film .
I'm a child of the 1970s, but this movie still scared me. You didn't have to grow up during the 50s or 60s to appreciate this. Anways in the 1980s, when Reagan was in office, nuclear war seemed a very real prospect. This movie is deadly serious, NO humor at all, and lit very sparsely. The battles between Russian and US planes seen as blips on a huge screen, is just as scary as if we had seen it realistically. Frightening, harrowing...hard to believe this film still has that effect now. Well worth watching but it's very very grim. Also, Fonda is superb as the President.
The ultimate moral dilemma confronts the President of the United States
everything goes wrong with the strategic offensive power of a US Air
bomber squadron, leaving viewers shaken at the end of a superior Cold war
drama highlighted by its extraordinary claustrophobia.
Filming of Fail-Safe coincided with filming of Dr. Strangelove, and Stanley Kubrick succeeded in getting his film done first. The earlier publicity for Strangelove hurt Fail-Safe's exposure, and this is doubly disappointing because Fail-Safe is in most ways a superior film, telling its story straight and highlighting superior performances by the entirety of the cast, from Henry Fonda, Frank Overton, Fritz Weaver, and Dan O'Herlihy to a stunningly strong performance by comedian Dom Deluise in a rare dramatic role.
What begins as a routine albiet annoying tour for a visiting Congressman of Strategic Air Command's headquarters in Omaha turns into the ulitmate nightmare. An unidentified aircraft is spotted on a course toward Detroit and airborne bombers are scrambled to fixed points orbiting Soviet Russia until the UFO can be identified. The scramble is routine but this particular one becomes more dramatic as identifying the UFO proves more troublesome than usual, but eventually all is cleared up.
But replacement of a faulty componant in SAC's mainframe briefly flashes the base's plotting board, and activates an attack signal in Bomber Group Six under the command of old-school Colonel Jack Grady (Edward Binns). Attempt to contact Omaha runs into unexpected and mysterious jamming, and the attack signal is verified - Moscow.
It is here that the real nightmare begins, and the President himself must summon Peter Buck (Larry Hagman) down to the underground command shelter in which lies the direct "hotline" oral communication hookup to Soviet Russia's ruling chairman himself. From here the President must coordinate with the Pentagon and SAC HQ to try and stop the bombers, despite endless jamming and the crew's own orders not to answer further contacts.
The actions to stop the bombers drive the drama and bring out the excellence of the cast. Frank Overton is the SAC commanding general whose faith in his systems is shaken by the accident. Fritz Weaver is his XO, driven by shame over his upbringing (shown when he gets into a fight with his alcoholic father before being summoned to SAC HQ) and more likely to crack under the strain. Dan O'Herlihy is a Brigadier General harboring endless doubt about the sagacity of the US strategic arsenal - "We've got to stop war, not limit it," he says, against the better judgement of his peers - who plays a pivotal role in the crisis' outcome.
But even with the excellence of these and others, it is Henry Fonda as the President and Larry Hagman who drive the drama in their hotline conversations with the Soviet chairman; the pivotal angle of these conversations is Peter Buck's whispered comments about the intangibles of the Russian leader's words and expression of them - when the Soviet claims no knowledge of jamming equipment, Buck expresses belief that the Russian is lying - and also his analysis of arguments among the Russian leader's own staff; as the conversations continue on Buck takes on more and more of the role of outright surrogate for the Soviet chairman.
The running battle to stop the bombers leaves the President with a decision that is the only hope, should the bombers succeed, to prevent Russia from a full-scale retaliatory attack that will incinerate the world; the President's decision is of course outrageously implausible in real life but nonetheless works in the context of the film, and leads to a delicious bit of irony at the very end that ties in a bizarre fixation with a matador.
Among the liberties the film takes to tell the story, aside from the hotline telephone (the actual hotline was a teletype transmitter, continuously updgraded over the years), are the types of bombers used and the speed and weapon capability of these craft. Such focus on hardware often hurts dramatic pull, but here it is kept to a minimum and only serves to help move the story along, a nice balance that exemplifies the strength of the story and the performances within.
Interesting that both Failsafe and Dr. Strangelove both came out in
1964 the year that Barry Goldwater and his candidacy brought up the
nuclear issue. After seeing both those films together with the flip
comments Goldwater made about nuclear war, he was never to be anything
other than a Senator from Arizona.
Everyone remembers Stanley Kubrick's black comedy Dr. Strangelove about a nuclear exchange. Failsafe which is as serious as a crutch is less remembered. Still viewed today it still has an important message, maybe more important now than when it was a bi-polar world. At least everyone then seemed to be on one side or the other.
My favorite performer in this film is Frank Overton who worked mostly in television. On the big screen he's probably best known as the small town sheriff in To Kill A Mockingbird. Though he did a lot of television work until he died in 1967, Failsafe turned out to be his last big screen performance. Overton does a great job as the general in charge of the Strategic Air Command in Omaha who is very reluctantly trying to help the Russians shoot down SAC bombers who've had one squad of them accidentally given the go ahead for nuclear war.
Henry Fonda is the beleaguered president of the United States who is issuing commands from a deep underground bunker beneath the White House with only Russian interpreter Larry Hagman there. The whole claustrophobic atmosphere adds to the desperation of Fonda's performance. By the way note the large closeups of Fonda as he's trying to order the SAC bombers back from their mission.
You might also note in a tiny role at the SAC command center Dom DeLuise in a very serious role as a sergeant. This may be the only time DeLuise ever had a serious part.
At the Pentagon is Defense Department consultant Walter Matthau also in a serious role as a Herman Kahn type, looking to 'win' a nuclear exchange. He's one frightening fellow.
The world is no longer bi-polar, but the lessons of Failsafe have yet to be learned.
I saw this movie via two instances of serendipity. First I just happened to
be living in an area that offered The Disney Channel in the basic cable
package (which is all I ever get) and that as a Bruce Springsteen fan I was
excited that the Disney Channel was going to broadcast a special concert
short on The Boss. Of course I'm an older Springsteen fan, so instead of
staying up late to watch it I just put a tape in and pressed record. The
next day I enjoyed the concert, but forgot to hit stop when it ended. What
followed next was "Fail Safe". After a few minutes it caught my interest,
and now is one of my favorite films.
I'm not sure if this was a precursor to "Strangelove" or vice versa, for they are both listed as 1964 releases. Oddly they both have the same texture about them which leads me to believe that there was more than coincidence in their respective productions. Both are piece de resistances in Cold War studies. The main sundering is that where "Strangelove" excels in parody, "Fail Safe" is rich in tension.
Of course an anxious film about nuclear war on the brink can easily invoke tension (remember "War Games"?), but this film exceeds a good plot. The filmmakers use a backdrop of soceital depravity to create neurasthenia and presentiment; as shown by the strange and erotic scene with Walter Matthau and the woman in the car (kind of a mass-sadisim, lust thing) and the implied domestic violence in the apartment scene. The movie is also deliciously philosophical (the clever "criminals and file clerks will survive" theory) as well as adroit phsycological character development for all the main characters.
The picture is also darkly filmed, remarkedly minimalist and low-budget as if to show the limits of technology, in order to symbolize the sophistry of our trust in it. BTW I love the Matthau character's (the political science professor) line as he explains the faults of missles that have no human intuition. "The rockets have the defect of their virtues" he says in explaining how they cannot make a conscious decision to abort after receiving an order. But the message in this film is clear; even if technology breaks down it is only a symptom of our doom, ultimately it is humans who are responsible.
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