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Fail Safe

Posted on the 21 July 2016 by Christopher Saunders

Fail Safe

"You make death an entertainment...that can be played in a living room."

Sidney Lumet's Fail Safe (1964) suffered from awful timing. Released the same year as Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, which played an identical doomsday scenario for laughs, Lumet's film was completely overshadowed. A shame, as it's an effective thriller worthy of respect.
The Air Force's Strategic Air Command detects an unidentified object over American airspace. This triggers a nuclear alert, sending American bomber crews towards Moscow. The sighting is an error and SAC recalls the bombers, but one squadron's beyond the point of no return. The President (Henry Fonda) desperately negotiates with the Soviet Premier, while military leaders debate whether to shoot down their colleagues. Eventually they're faced with agonizing choice.
Fail Safe can't be faulted as a thriller. Lumet and writer Walter Bernstein wind the drama tight, showing a chillingly plausible portrait of annihilation. Protocol becomes a trap: the bomber crew is trained to disregard radio commands after entering Soviet airspace. The Pentagon agonizes over whether to follow orders or cheer their colleagues. Colonel Cascio (Fritz Weaver) loses his cool and contemplates mutiny. The Soviets themselves won't trust the President until it's nearly too late.
Fail Safe inverts Strangelove's nihilism, showing officials trying to unknot an impenetrable system. The chief bomber (Ed Binns) plows ahead, ignoring pleas from the president and even his wife (Janet Ward). Pentagon officials and even the Soviets receive shaded treatment. Only Dr. Groeteschele (Walter Matthau) seems an outright villain, translating glib parlor talk about megadeaths into reality. Ultimately though, he's no guiltier than the well-intentioned men who put the system into place.
Lumet stages everything with maximum intensity. It's a remarkably claustrophobic film, limited to a few sets, with Gerald Hirschfeld shooting in stark, shadowy close-ups and wide-angle gloom. Eschewing musical score, comic relief or subplots, Lumet ensures that each scene ratchets up the tension until the audience appears ready to burst, building set pieces from shouted dialog and lines on a control board. The denouement is monstrously bleak but there's no other conceivable end.
Fail Safe
One reason Strangelove aged better is that Mutual Assured Destruction seems absurd. Fail Safe attributes its disaster to systemic failure rather than a mad general, but many details are identical. Characters muse about limiting nuclear war to 60 million casualties, and Groeteschele even mentions a doomsday device! It's so grotesque that even Lumet's seriousness can't alleviate it. Compared to Fail Safe's Solomonic climax, Strangelove's apocalyptic finale seems logical.
Another is that Fail Safe, like other Lumet films, takes on the contours of a message picture. Characters pronounce nuclear war inevitable due to the System and Red-baiting. Groetheschele denounces Marxists as unfeeling insects, only to be dressed-down for inhumanity. Worst is the President lecturing the audience on how Cold War tensions make war inevitable. No doubt right-thinking viewers nodded their heads sagely, and did nothing.
Fail Safe restricts its cast to varying shades of angst. Henry Fonda spends his screen time barking into a phone, with occasional asides to Larry Hagman's flustered aide. Frank Overton's coolheaded general wrestles with hotheaded Fritz Weaver. Ed Binns is the unflappable bomber pilot; Dan O'Herlihy receives the worst possible order. Walter Matthau's Kissinger-esque intellectual steals the show, offering rational arguments for annihilation.
Flawed though it is, Fail Safe is a compelling film. Like the best thrillers, it winds so tight that viewers can scarcely breathe by the climax. Its main demerit is that it's not as brilliant as a film released the same year, which shouldn't be held against it.

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