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'Fail Safe' Reminds Us Doomsday Is Only A Few Clicks Away

Courtesy the Criterion Collection
Doomsday is nigh in "Fail Safe," a tense political thriller now on Blu-ray.

When I was ten years old, nuclear war seemed a real possibility. I knew U.S. relations with the Soviet Union were fraught through occasional glimpses of the NBC Nightly News with John Chancellor. I had seen Carl Sagan in 1980 warn about the dangers of escalating stockpiles of weapons on “Cosmos.” In early 1983, I was glued to the edge of my bed as I watched “Special Bulletin,” a made-for-TV movie about rogue terrorists who detonate a small nuclear device in South Carolina. In the fall of 1983, nuclear war was the talk among friends at elementary school the day after “The Day After.” And that summer, “WarGames” was released, depicting a kid not much older than me bringing the U.S. and Soviet Union to the brink of war--using his computer. This both terrified and fascinated me.

The early 1980s brought kind of a second golden age of nuclear thrillers, including “The Manhattan Project,” about a kid who builds a homemade bomb, and the sobering “Testament,” starring Jane Alexander as a nuclear widow struggling to hold her family and community together in the wake of a nearby blast.

All of this primed the pump for me to dig deeper into film history when I got to college, and the nuclear scare films of the 1960s that grew out of U.S.-Soviet tensions of the time, and incidents like the Cuban Missile Crisis. Prompted by an early admiration for the work of Stanley Kubrick, I fell in love with the great director’s outrageous satire about loving the bomb, “Dr. Strangelove.” But along the way I learned of a curious artifact associated with that more famous film—Sidney Lumet’s “Fail Safe.”

The latter movie stars Henry Fonda as the president of the United States, who must act swiftly and strategically after a malfunction causes computers at Stategic Air Command in Omaha to send one squadron of bombers on an attack run to Moscow, with a 20 megaton payload.

The shorthand description of the film is that “Fail Safe” features a near identical plot as Kubrick’s movie, told straight. Such an elevator pitch version of the story does Lumet and the film’s players a disservice.

Like “Strangelove,” “Fail Safe” largely takes place in three locations: the lead bomber, Strategic Air Command, and Washington, D.C. But “Fail Safe” also opens on life outside these rooms, spending its first 20 minutes establishing character, including a married general and father, a civilian advisor and hawk (Walter Matthau, before he became known for comedy), and the men flying the planes, including Col. Jack Grady, who despite liking “the personal factor” of human interaction, nevertheless follows every protocol in the skies above Russia by the book, even when common sense should tell him otherwise.

Once in the thick of it, “Fail Safe” does not let up, and works as a top-notch thriller, with the fate of the world at stake.

Lumet had come to Hollywood through television, and was a master at using unique angles and small spaces to ratchet up the tension in a scene. In “Fail Safe,” the camera catches the back of a neck (“very presidential” looking, as Lumet notes on the Blu-ray commentary track), or crops off portions of a face, so that the audience pays even more attention to the words from characters’ mouths.

Alternatively, there’s one scene near the midway point of the film when Fonda calls up the Soviet Premier. The President’s interpreter, Buck, played by Larry Hagman, sits on one side of the frame while Fonda is at the opposite end. In an unbroken, five-minute shot, Fonda delivers a typically sturdy performance, but Hagman, in one of his first film roles, pulls off something amazing. As translator for the Russian Premier, the President has told Buck to convey not just what his Russian counterpart is saying, but how he sounds, and what he’s feeling. Hagman listens carefully for the nuances of the Russian voice, and speaks haltingly, his eyes occasionally lifting up in thought. At times in “Fail Safe,” Hagman seems to not just be translating the Russian Premier’s voice, but to be playing him, no more so than in the final moments of the film, as the camera turns around to face the actors dead-on, and Fonda speaks straight at the audience, “What do we say to the dead?” Hagman replies that “If we are men, we must say that this will not happen again.”

Credit Courtesy the Criterion Collection
"What do we say to the dead?" Henry Fonda and Larry Hagman deliver great performances as The President and his interpreter, Buck.

What Fonda and Hagman are referring to is the film’s shocking conclusion, seemingly the only way to avoid an all-out global thermonuclear war, but one that still leaves millions of Americans and Russians dead.

In an era of renewed tension between the United States and Russia, and now North Korea, “Fail Safe” still feels urgent, even if a cyber attack seems (hopefully?) more likely than an ICBM strike.

Watching this movie today also takes me back to 10-year-old me in 1983. Little did we know just how close to the brink we came that year. In September 1983 a Russian colonel on duty at a bunker near Moscow correctly judged a report of an incoming American missile to be a false alarm. “I just couldn't believe that just like that, all of a sudden, someone would hurl five missiles at us,” Stanislav Petrov told the website MosNews.com in 2004.

To paraphrase Col. Grady: You know what? I like the personal factor.

FAIL-SAFE on Blu-ray

Credit Courtesy the Criterion Collection

Sidney Lumet’s “Fail Safe” has been restored and remastered from a 4K scan of the film, and is now available on Blu-ray and DVDfrom the Criterion Collection. The grain of the original film is intact, and the black-and-white photography looks beautiful. Lumet uses shadows throughout the film for dramatic effect.

The disc is lighter on special features than most Criterion releases. It includes a short featurette on the making of the film, produced in 2000. You’re forgiven if you watch it and wonder why George Clooney gets so much screen time to opine on the film; that year, he was behind the production of a live-for-television version of the movie. Another interview on the disc features critic J. Hoberman talking about nuclear fear films of the early ‘60s. He was in middle school at the time, and like me in the 1980s, these movies made an impact on him. The disc also includes an audio commentary from Sidney Lumet that includes some great inside information on the making of the movie, but is also punctuated by silent gaps. Perhaps he got just as engrossed in the movie as you surely will.