A series of human and computer errors sends a squadron of American B-58 bombers to nuke Moscow. The President, in order to convince the Soviets that this is a mistake, orders the Strategic Air Command to help the Soviets stop them. This movie pulls no punches. The ending will make you thank God the Cold War is over!
Dan O'Herlihy ... Brig. Gen. Warren A. Black
Walter Matthau ... Prof. Groeteschele
Frank Overton ... Gen. Bogan
Ed Binns ... Col. Jack Grady
Fritz Weaver ... Col. Cascio
Henry Fonda ... The President
Larry Hagman ... Buck
William Hansen ... Defense Secretary Swenson
Russell Hardie ... Gen. Stark
Russell Collins ... Gordon Knapp
Director: Sidney Lumet
Codecs: DivX 5 / MP3
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 bombers 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, the 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 factor".
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 thermonuclear war.
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.
FAIL-SAFE suffers from something of a confusing opening ten minutes, introducing too many characters too quickly; however, if you can overcome this weak start I can assure you that you will be amply rewarded.
OK, this movie does contain flaws, as mentioned by other reviewers: the stock footage is weak, but it occupies about 20 seconds of screen time, and most viewers don't know – or care – whether they are looking at a F-104, a B-58 or a UB40 – it's not important to the plot, and the quality of footage is hardly surprising considering the lack of co-operation the makers received from the US defence department (and isn't such lack of co-operation nearly always good reason to view the movie in question?); it's true that the US president wouldn't be isolated with just a translator for assistance, but this works as a powerful dramatic device, highlighting the pressures and isolation of the man who must make the decisions that will affect the future of all mankind, and who, despite all his advisors, must bear sole responsibility for making that ultimate decision; also, Walter Matthau appears miscast as the hawk-like ‘political scientist' with a chillingly ruthless streak only because he is now better known as a comedian, whereas in 1964 he was more of a dramatic actor.
All these flaws pale into insignificance, however, in the face of Sidney Lumet's assured direction. Lumet creates an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia, with the majority of scenes taking place in either small, windowless and sparsely furnished rooms, dark control centres dominated by the screen upon which the drama in the sky is unfolding, and aboard a small, cluttered bomber. Not one single note of music is heard throughout the entire movie. The conversations between the president of the United States and the Soviet premier are tense and believable, an effect achieved largely through the use of Larry Hagman as an interpreter rather than having the two men speak to each other directly. As time passes, and the stakes grow higher, the tension is cranked up to unbearable heights until Henry Fonda, the US President, is forced to make a horrific decision in order to assuage Soviet suspicions. (If you don't know what that decision is don't read any of the reviews below: it's given away on a number of occasions).
The movie is also packed with numerous memorable scenes: the opening bullfight; the US control room staff cheering spontaneously when one of their own planes is destroyed by a Soviet fighter plane; the poignant conversation between General Bogan and his Soviet counterpart as they realise all is lost; Matthau's clinical recommendation that, in the event of a nuclear strike, search efforts should be focused on retrieving corporation records instead of recovering the dead and dying; the superb climax that captures perfectly the sudden senseless obliteration of a city and it's people, and irrefutably proves that multi-million dollar special effects aren't required to make a powerful, deeply affecting, impact on the viewer.
* With one exception (see goofs entry), all shots of US Air Force "Vindicator" bombers are views of the same Convair B-58 Hustler, taken from a stock piece of film after the Department of Defense declined to cooperate with the filmmakers.
* Look for a couple of brief shots of a very young Dom DeLuise in his first film.
* The large, metal phone the President uses to talk to the soviet premier was actually a special phone used by explosives companies during blasting.
* The big screen in the control room at Omaha was entirely front-projection, and had to be very carefully contrasted to appear clearly on black and white film. This posed a problem for the crew, as the air in the room had to be totally clear of dust so as not to disrupt the image (and make the projection obvious). The screen in the war-room used the same film-stock but was rear-projection.
* The view of the satellite zooming into a closer shot is actually film taken from a camera mounted on a captured German V2 rocket launched from White Sands, New Mexico. The film is run backwards to show the illusion of zooming closer to the ground.
* Feature film debut of Fritz Weaver.
* The film has no music -- either score or source music -- whatsoever.
* Columbia Pictures produced both this movie and Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Director Stanley Kubrick insisted his movie be released first, and it was, in January 1964. When Fail-Safe (1964) was released, it garnered excellent reviews, but audiences found it unintentionally funny because of "Strangelove", and stayed away. Henry Fonda later said he would never have made this movie if he had seen "Strangelove" first, because he would have laughed too.
* The "computer-generated" image on the control-room screen (including the map of the world, the planes and the explosions) was entirely drawn and animated by hand.