Saturday, November 12, 2011


(October 1964, U.S.)

Without going into too much unnecessary details regarding comparisons between Sidney Lumet's FAIL-SAFE and Stanley Kubrick's DR. STRANGLOVE, both fictional tales of a Cold War nuclear crisis, let me just simply state that Kubrick's film is a film that is outright funny. FAIL-SAFE is anything but. The suspense can have you sitting there full of tension because you know in your bones that this is all going to end on an apocalyptic level.

Despite the similarities, controversies and legal battles between FAIL-SAFE and DR. STRANGELOVE, the heart of it's dark tale could not have been more timely, considering it was 1964 and tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were already at their height. This film expresses the discomfort with how much of the U.S. defense system is automated without any direct human responsibility. So when an unidentified object is detected approaching North America from Europe, the incident is regarded as a common occurrence and standard procedure is invoked, deploying American fighter aircraft to meet the potential threat. According to routine, American strategic bombers are directed to fly to various predetermined "fail-safe" points outside the borders of the Soviet Union, where they are to remain until receiving either orders to return to base or a special attack code transmitted through an electronic "fail-safe" box in each group commander's bomber.

(Are you all following this so far?)

So the Strategic Air Comman (SAC) computer system experiences a technical failure which causes a valid attack code to be electronically transmitted to one of the bomber groups. The commander of the bomber group, attempts to contact SAC to confirm the order, but is unable to do so, as the group's radio transmissions are being jammed by the Soviets. Having received a valid attack code, and with no known contrary orders, he proceeds with the group's designated attack mission: to drop thermonuclear bombs on Moscow (Uh-oh!). Now the commander will ignore all radio transmissions and orders from not only the President of the United States (played brilliantly by Henry Fonda), but even the voice of his own beloved wife.

What follows is not only interesting, but very frightening, as well. Knowing that Moscow is going to be unavoidably destroyed due to human error, the President is now in the horrifying position to save face and somehow "even the score". To do that, he must knowingly and deliberately order an equivalent nuclear strike on New York City, even with his own wife visiting the city. The entire premise is scary, to say the least, even when we are living in a time when the threat of nuclear arms does not hold a great fear with us. Can you possibly imagine what it must have been like to watch this tragic story unfold on screen during the height of the Cold War?

Getting back to Henry Fonda's performance for a moment - anyone who's seen enough movies has seen actors play fictional versions of the President of the United States. Michael Douglas in THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT (1995), Bill Pullman in INDEPENDENCE DAY (1996) and Harrison Ford in AIR FORCE ONE (1997) are just a few that come to mind. Fonda's intense attention to detail during a time of horrible crisis and gut-wrenching decisions make his portrayel as the President the best I've ever seen on film. Watch his face and listen to his voice and you'll see what I'm talking about and will also likely agree with my opinion. And check out a very young Larry Hagman as the president's Russian translator who must not only repeat the Soviet Chairman is saying, but also convincingly convey his feelings and emotions.

There are two elements I find particularly chilling in FAIL-SAFE. The first is the high-piched shrill sound of the telephone melting at the other end of the line when the nuclear explosions have destroyed the city of Moscow. The second are those final camera shots of typical New York City moments just before the missles are about to strike ground zero at the Empire State Building. Watching that, I can never help but wonder why it's always New York City that is the butt of all movie attacks. I think that September 11, 2001 was more life imitating art than one could possibly imagine!

Favorite line or dialogue:

President of the United States: "Yes, Mr. Chairman."
Soviet Chairman (via American translator): "Mr. President...I have ordered our long range missles to stand down from their alert. Only that part of our defense that has a chance of shooting down your bomber is still active. We do not think we have much of a chance."
President: "I know."
Chairman: "And yet this was nobody's fault."
President: "I don't agree."
Chairman: "No human being did wrong. No one is to be blamed."
President: "We're to blame. Both of us. We let our machines get out of hand."
Chairman: "Still, it WAS an accident."
President: "Two great cities may be destroyed. Millions of innocent people killed! What do we say to them, Mr. Chairman? Accidents will happen? I won't accept that!"
Chairman: "All I know is that as long as we have weapons..."
President: "All I know is that men are responsible! WE'RE responsible for what happens to us! Today we had a taste of the future! Do we learn from it or do we go on the way we have? What do we do, Mr. Chairman? What do we say to the dead?"
Chairman: "I think if we are men, we must say this will not happen again. But do you think it possible? With all that stand between us?"
President: "We put it there, Mr. Chairman, and we're not helpless! What we put between us we can remove!"

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