Premise: A technical malfunction sends American planes to Moscow to deliver a nuclear attack. Can all-out war be averted?
Sidney Lumet’s classic political thriller Fail Safe is a masterpiece of tension and horrific verisimilitude. The film boasts a remarkable cast of characters played to wonderful effect by talented actors like Henry Fonda, Fritz Weaver, and Walter Matthau, to name a few. What is most striking (no pun intended) about Fail Safe is the manner in which the events and philosophical debates play out. Fail Safe uses an intense situation as a backdrop to address the fear of communism and “the other” head on. It also works overtime to depict a world where the people in charge of nuclear superpowers are human and fallible creatures. This creates an immersion like no other and a sense of unease that still hits home decades after its release.
The fear of nuclear war and annihilation is ever-present throughout Fail Safe. It is endlessly impressive that, despite not having access to anything from the government during production, Lumet and his cast and crew managed to create a living, breathing ecosystem of government entities that feels wholly authentic. It gives the technical glitch, and potential nuclear holocaust it threatens, a distinct sense of realism that makes the film’s premise all the more engaging and frightening.
In fact, Fail Safe feels so authentic that the few moments where the drama gets a little heightened actually stick out, almost in a negative way. Moments like Col. Cascio (Fritz Weaver)’s paranoid freak-out late in the film play against the more subdued realistic tension that builds throughout the larger piece. It doesn’t destroy the film. Nor does it drag the momentum down too much. Ultimately, it is in keeping with the tension and the characterization established in the film. However, the realistic tone of the film overall makes that particular scene (and a couple other moments) stand out slightly.
However, where Fail Safe really shines is in the delivery of its premise to the audience. The film is as much a ticking clock thriller as it is a conversation with the audience. The decisions made by the President (Henry Fonda) reverberate through the film in unique ways. For example, a moment that plays into the USA’s favor is met by applause and cheers by a room filled with military personnel. Their cheers are immediately and harshly brought down to Earth as they (and we) are reminded of the severity of the situation. “This isn’t some damn football game!” Gen. Bogan (Frank Overton) exclaims as Lumet reminds us that this isn’t a piece of entertainment, so much as it is a window into a horrifying and very real possibility.
While most of the characters in Fail Safe are politicians or military personnel, Professor Groeteschele (Walter Matthau) is a civilian political scientist. He represents the more extreme perspective on the events in the film and it is to absolutely fascinating effect. Throughout Fail Safe, Groeteschele advocates for the government to use the technical glitch to their advantage and decimate Russia with nuclear strikes as a means to preserve American culture and way of life. He espouses on the subject as if thermo-nuclear war is ultimately unavoidable and the end of human civilization is a forgone conclusion. He’s a boisterous blowhard who sees the world as a political game board with a flagrant disregard for human life. In other words, it’s an extreme viewpoint that’s held by a highly dangerous man. Yet it is made so believable by Matthau’s staggering performance. The realism of the script and the earnestness with which Matthau delivers his urgent retorts to the crisis at hand is simply spellbinding.
The counterpart to Professor Groeteschele’s harsh and callous attitude toward human life and civilization is found in Henry Fonda’s wonderful performance as the President of the United States (no name given). While the two men never meet, they are on opposite sides of an invisible empathy spectrum in the film. Fonda has the weight of the world on his shoulders as he is faced with the impossible choices that Groeteschele elsewhere pretends to know the answers to. The way the film never pits the two men together, yet compares them so vividly is another example of the extremely strong writing of Fail Safe.
The film almost completely isolates the President, save for pairing him with a soft spoken interpreter named Buck (Larry Hagman). The dynamic presented to the audience between the President and Buck is the emotional core of the film itself. The two are in a bunker alone with a telephone. The way the President interacts with Buck (reassuring him and kindly instructing him on how to handle the pressure at hand) speaks volumes to the nature of this iteration of the leader of the free world and the demeanor he will (and does) employ during the crisis. Henry Fonda is as magnificent and kind as any actor who has taken on the role of the US President in fiction since. This (for lack of a better word) likeable aspect to the character makes the decisions he makes throughout the film more difficult to swallow as the narrative plays out.
The decisions made by the President are difficult ones, to say the least. However, the film doesn’t come down one way or the other in terms of right or wrong. While Groeteschele is clearly painted in a certain light, the film wisely leaves the President’s decisions and actions up to the viewer to interpret. Sacrifice and hard decisions are certainly what the President has to face throughout the crisis. However, the fallout (again, no pun intended) of those decisions and those sacrifices are entirely up to the audience to infer and debate. This gives the storytelling in Fail Safe a strength and staying power in its audience’s minds that isn’t easy to attain.
Although this brilliant Cold War time bomb thriller has lived in the shadow of Kubrick’s satirical masterpiece Dr. Strangelove for decades, it’s deserving of just as much high praise. The fear and tension at play in Fail Safe is just as palpable and relevant today as it was in 1964. The film provides us with horrific solutions to impossible problems delivered through the vessel of a relatable President who commands our respect immediately. As such, it will leave you with a lot to consider and debate long after you see it.
Fail Safe is available to stream on Criterion Channel and is available on blu-ray. (Support us by using this Amazon Affiliate Link to buy it)
About the Writer: Matt Hurt is the creator of ObsessiveViewer.com. He also created, hosts, and produces The Obsessive Viewer, Anthology, and Tower Junkies podcasts. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association and lives in Indianapolis with his cat Pizza Roll.