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.