Fail-Safe or Strangelove? That Is the Question
***This Review Contains Spoilers***
Fail-Safe is largely overshadowed by Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove due to both movies 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. I much prefer Fail-Safe which I feel is a considerably more suspenseful 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 examines 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 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 (on the surface level at least) I’m sure many wish for (no political party is mentioned) as he tries to remain calm under the most extreme pressure.
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 heightens the sense of fear and giving the film a great visual flare in one of the most visually stunning black & white films of the 1960s’s. Hagman’s performance itself is especially impressive as his character translates Russian to English as he listens to it being spoken, talking in a uniquely awkward manner in several sequences throughout the film, the first of which is a single, lengthy uncut shot.
The only other liberty I have to question in Fail-Safe is the failure of the wife of the bomber pilot O’Grady to tell him something only the two of them would know when speaking to him over the radio in an attempted to divert the bomber from destroying Moscow and convince them this isn’t an impression from Soviet spies – Could have at least been worth an attempt in order to avoid World War III.
Comedic actor Walter Matthau shows off his dramatic stripes as the cynical nuclear expert Professor Groeteschele, whom is 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 as seen at a house party during the beginning of the film. Later he makes very questionable recommendations in attempt to have communism destroyed when the opportunity arises due to the technical mishap. His final worlds in Fail-Safe are a recommendation to prioritise recovering business records in New York City over the recovery of survivors and the dead as apparently the economy depends on it. Whether or not this and other actions are justified, Groeteschele is a character who gives off bad vibes throughout the film and appears to enjoy his job a little too much.
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. The Congressman Mr. Raskob acts as the audience getaway character, perplexed and terrified of the technology he is being given a tour off at the war room of Strategic Air Command while the military personal act in a confident manner to the improbability of anything going wrong. 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.