Fail-Safe (1964)

Fail-Safe or Strangelove? That Is the Question

Fail-Safe is largely overshadowed by Dr. Strangelove, due to being released in the same year. Both films deal with the events leading up to a nuclear strike, although Fail-Safe takes a serious approach, as opposed to the comedic nature of Dr. Strangelove. Personally however I prefer Fail-Safe, which I feel is a considerably more suspense film than Dr. Strangelove is a funny film. Fail-Safe examines in step by step detail what could potentially happen if a technical mishap gave pilots on a bomber the order to drop a nuclear bomb, in this case, on the city of Moscow. The movie never explains what the technical mishaps was but the rest of the film examine in precise detail the actions which would be carried out if such a thing was too happen, primarily trying to stop the bombers and convincing the Soviets that the oncoming attack is accidental. Although the opening scene at the rodeo seems rather pretentious, Fail-Safe is a no nonsense, straight to the point wordy drama; like Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, Fail-Safe is a film driven by heart pounding wordy exchanges.

Playing the President of The United States certainly requires an actor with charisma and a commanding screen presence, no surprise that Henry Fonda pulls of the role with the greatest of ease. As a huge Henry Fonda fan, I do delight in seeing him as the most powerful man in the world. Along with James Stewart and Gary Cooper as actors who best embody the everyman, I feel this is one of the best roles of his career, representing the ideal American president I’m sure many wish for. Fonda spends almost the entire film in a small room, only being accompanied by his Russian language translator Buck (Larry Hagman). This one aspect of the film did have questioning why the president isn’t surrounded by advisers and associates but this one liberty does create a sense of loneliness and claustrophobia, with the film’s use of high contrast black and white cinematography, also heightening the sense of fear but also giving the film a great visual flare. Hagman’s performance itself is especially impressive as his character translates Russian to English as hears it being spoken, talking in a uniquely awkward manner.

Comedic actor Walter Matthau is also superb, revealing his other side as a dramatic actor portraying a cynical nuclear expert, more concerned with the political and economic aspects of nuclear warfare as opposed to the cost to human life. He is cold hearted and has no sentimental side to him and even gets pleasure making discussions of nuclear war into a piece of sick entertainment. The movie contains a disclaimer at the end that the US military has procedures on place to prevent the film’s events from occurring actually occurring but with a character like Matthau’s being a government adviser, I wonder what kind of statement the movie is making. I doubt Fail-Safe is going to give any viewers a pro-nuclear mindset and will leave a chill down your spine. I feel nobody does thought provoking and issue based films (or issuetainment) as well as Sidney Lumet but none quite as terrifying as Fail-Safe.


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