Henry Fonda, Dan O'Herlihy, Walter Matthau
Directed by Sidney Lumet
At the height of the Cold War, the Strategic Air Command maintains squadrons of bombers in flight 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Armed with hydrogen bombs, these bombers patrol the skies within hours of strategic positions in the Soviet Union, for immediate deployment at the command of the President of the United States. These bombers are subject to an extensive fail-safe system designed to ensure that only the President can issue the fatal order... but a computer error results in one squadron being issued the command to proceed to, and drop its bombs on, its target: Moscow. When the military is unable to recall the squadron, the President (Henry Fonda) desperately contacts the Kremlin and offers all possible assistance to help the Soviet fighters shoot the squadron down. Success is by no means assured, though, and to prevent an all-out nuclear war, the President makes a terrifying decision: to prove that the attack is not intentional, if the bombers get through and level Moscow, the US military will destroy New York City.
Fail-Safe is perhaps the darkest and most genuinely scary film to explore the nuclear politics of the Cold War. We are privileged to live in a time that is far removed from the bleak, fatalistic days of the early 1960s, when schoolchildren still practiced "duck and cover" atomic safety drills and the world came within hours of nuclear war over Soviet missiles in Cuba. A film like Fail-Safe serves as a startling reminder of the delicate balance maintained by the two great powers, and the terrifyingly high price that would be paid if that balance failed. The two previous films in our "Cold War Paranoia" series, John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May, dealt directly with the menace, real or perceived, posed to the United States by Communism. Interestingly, political philosophy takes a back seat in Fail-Safe; but for a few isolated scenes, it's possible to envision the same scenario taking place with the two sides reversed, with the Soviet premier trying desperately to recall bombers headed for America. When the subject is the bomb, the film seems to say, the legitimate differences between Communism and democracy recede in importance; it is enough to know that there are two sides, and that it is only through a concerted effort by good men on both sides that they do not destroy each other, along with the rest of the world.
Fail-Safe was directed by Sidney Lumet, who also directed Dog Day Afternoon, which we saw in June. Like the later film, Fail-Safe was given a very spare, austere production design; irrelevancies are boiled away, leaving only the actors and a few minimalist props. The most tense scenes in the film by far feature Henry Fonda negotiating by telephone with the Soviet premier. The President and his Russian interpreter sit alone in what is very nearly a completely empty set, with only a table and a few pieces of communications equipment. It is probably no coincidence that Lumet cut his teeth on the live television dramas of the 1950s, like John Frankenheimer; these Cold War thrillers, it seems, mesh very well with the tension and claustrophobia of Playhouse 90-style teleplays. In fact, when George Clooney produced the television remake of Fail-Safe for CBS in 2000, it was broadcast live, in much the same style as the teleplays of the 1950s.
Points to ponder:
- You might detect certain strong similarities between this film and a Stanley Kubrick film released the same year. Keep them in mind for the next time we meet.
- Look for: Sorrell "Boss Hogg" Booke as a skeptical congressman, and a very young Larry Hagman as the President's interpreter.
- Walter Matthau has a rare dramatic role as Groeteschele, a university professor who bloodlessly but persuasively advocates a massive first strike against the Soviet Union. Groeteschele was most likely based on real-life nuclear scientists like Werner von Braun, Edward Teller, and John von Neumann. Von Neumann was an originator of the branch of mathematics known as game theory, which seeks to prescribe the most profitable course of action in a given situation in which the decisions and outcomes are known and the competing parties are assumed to be rational. He gained a certain notoriety as an analyst at the RAND Corporation in the 1950s when he used game theory to "prove" that the United States should engage in "preventative war" against the Soviet Union; assuming that the Soviets were thinking along the same lines, he reasoned, one of the two countries was almost certainly going to get toasted, and given that, better that it should be them than us. Thankfully, his view did not prevail, but only with the benefit of hindsight can we safely call the notion madness. Listen to Groeteschele's arguments, made under the direction of the outspoken liberal Lumet. Is there logic to them, in the context of the film and of the time? If so, what is the counterargument?