May 29, 2006
Fail-Safe (1964)
Grade: 35/100

Director: Sidney Lumet
Stars: Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, Larry Hagman

What it's about. A series of military accidents sends a group of bombers to Moscow to drop the H-bomb. If they can't be stopped, can World War III be prevented? Henry Fonda is the earnest U.S. President, a young Larry Hagman is his Russian interpreter, and Walter Matthau is a creepy war planner.

How others will see it. This movie has a grim On the Beach air of despair to it. There's plenty of drama, after all, life as we know it is at stake. Whether people would react to it the way they do is another matter. The exaggerated actions and preposterous conclusions will probably be accepted by most viewers. This is a film for the strategist, rather than the idealist. If nothing else, the film might at least make people think about the possibility of nuclear war, a concept incorrectly discounted in recent decades.

How I felt about it. Story ideas float around Hollywood, and sometimes the same idea with differences in style and quality, gets made at the same time. Thus, you have two pig movies in 1995 (Babe and Gordy), two different cartoon ant movies in 1998 (Antz and A Bug's Life), and two Truman Capote movies made in 2005 (Capote and Infamous), one of which was held back for a year once it was realized it was the inferior version.

And so it was back in 1964 that two movies capitalized on the fears generated by the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Wisely, Kubrick turned Dr. Strangelove into a comedy, and made his best film as a result. The less imaginative Sidney Lumet continued on the course of a deadly serious implementation, to their detriment when Fail-Safe hit theaters shortly after Dr. Strangelove.

Problems begin early on. Walter Matthau is the guest of honor at a dinner party, held at 5:30 in the morning? He regales his supper club set with tales of nuclear war. This pompous person turns down the opportunity to have sex with a turned-on nine-out-of-ten, so he can tell her that she disgusts him. Go figure.

Of course, no one in their right mind wants nuclear war. But in this movie, plenty of people like this exist, and they're even high-ranking advisers and officers. Colonel Cascio (Fritz Weaver) freaks out, and in an Alexander Haig-like moment, declares himself in charge. How far could such a shameful stunt take him?

Both Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe make Americans the culprits, that is, it is their accident that triggers war. That is a movie necessity, otherwise the story of stopping the bombers would focus on Russia. In both movies, the President is capable and tries to prevent all-out war, despite getting inflammatory advice.

But Dr. Strangelove is outstanding, while Fail-Safe is a dud. It's not just because the Presidency is reduced to a man, his interpreter, and a speakerphone. It's not because a pilot refuses to communicate with his own wife before dropping the bomb. The problem isn't that breaking news in the war room is delivered in the form a slow screen crawl. The problem is that true reactions are boring, while exaggerated reactions are bogus. Maybe comedy was the only way out.