Fail-Safe – Weapons of Mass Destruction week

This is Weapons of Mass Destruction week. Fail-Safe is currently available on instant Netflix.


WATCH: Fail-Safe (1964) – NR – Not rated

“Director Sidney Lumet transforms the doomsday scenario played for laughs in Dr. Strangelove into a taut thriller. When a computer glitch sends a bomber crew on a suicide mission to Moscow, the U.S. president (Henry Fonda) agonizes over how to stop it. Will Fonda tell the Russians to shoot down the plane? Global thermonuclear war may hinge on his decision.”

“I say every war, including thermonuclear war, must have a winner and a loser. Which would you rather be?”

“Whats the difference between 60 million dead and a hundred million dead?” – “Forty million”

Fail-Safe shares a remarkable number of resemblances to the film we reviewed yesterday, Dr. Strangelove. They were both released in 1964. Both are directed by celebrated directors and feature wonderful casts.

Both are based on cautionary novels about the possibility of error causing a nuclear catastrophe. The plots are remarkably similar and Kubrick wisely stipulated that his film be released first. Dr. Strangelove had already been delayed as a result of the Kennedy assassination.

While thematically identical, the two films could not be further apart in tone. Where Dr. Strangelove is a droll satire, Fail-Safe is a deadly serious examination of a nuclear issue and cold war politics.

Director Sidney Lumet does a wonderful job with ensemble casts in tense situations. He deals heavily in characterization and his movies are usually very light in physical action. This predisposition suits this topic well.

Lumet uses his 12 Angry Men star Henry Fonda as the President. This is wonderful casting of course coming after decades of Henry Fonda playing American everymen. Fonda is both powerful and sympathetic here in very tense situations.

Walter Matthau is exceptional as an extremely hawkish professor. Even while working on (okay mostly exacerbating) the current crisis, it is clear he is positioning himself for advantage in a future situation. Dan OHerlihy is our nominal hero, a General with a conscience. A young Larry (Dallas) Hagman plays an interpreter caught in the middle.

The stark black and white cinematography works well for the bleak depiction of possible nuclear tragedy. Sidney Lumet avoids any kind of flashiness that might detract from the drama. The movie is, not surprisingly, somewhat heavy-handed.

To show how serious the subject is, there is no music whatsoever during the film. A horrifying twist three quarters of the way in the movie, while somewhat difficult to swallow, delivers quite a punch to the proceedings.

Netflix presents Fail-Safe in HD for those not viewing it on a computer. This is a good slice of Cold War paranoia that had the misfortune of following the brilliant Dr. Strangelove. While worth recommending, it is nowhere near as good as Dr. Strangelove so watch that one first.

People Watch: This movie was quite the launching pad for a number of careers. This is the debut not only of Fritz Weaver but also of comedian Dom Deluise and Dana (MacGyver) Elcar.