Tag Archives: Fail-Safe

Fail-Safe (1964) 4.36/5 (2)


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Rating: The Good – 92.5
Genre: Thriller, War
Duration: 112 mins
Director: Sidney Lumet
Stars: Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, Fritz Weaver

Sidney Lumet’s powerhouse of a film came out at the same time as Dr Strangelove and given it was about a squadron of US bombers who are accidentally ordered to drop their nuclear payload on Moscow and the frantic attempts of the US military to stop it, it was completely overshadowed by Kubrick’s similarly themed classic. In popularity that is, not quality, definitely not quality. Henry Fonda stars as the US president who must handle the incendiary negotiations with his Soviet counterpart while maintaining his military staff’s perspective on the other telephone line. Walter Matthau is the creepy political scientist who advises the latter to make the most out of the situation and attack all out in the expectation that the communist mindset will self-council surrender.

Unique, intensely disturbing, and saturated with nervous authenticity, Fail-Safe is a remarkable piece of work in every respect. The drama is constantly switching between the White House, the Pentagon, the lead bomber, and its airforce base but at all times the transitions are seamless. Fonda is as usual terrific in a role of authority while Matthau seems to relish the darker role. However, given the broad scope to the drama, there’s a well rounded cast of support players such as Dan O’Herlihy who have just as much to do and are, in the main, every bit as impressive. Given the inevitable prevalence of technical jargon, there’s proper depth to Walter Bernstein’s screenplay. The dialogue elegantly balances the philosophical, the emotional, and pragmatic as Eugene Burdick’s story plays out on a number of simultaneously relevant dimensions. As the insanity of what we are seeing spirals into ever darkening territory, the scenario ironically begins to feel more and more real.

Fail-Safe is Lumet at his imperious best reflecting all the innovation that marked The Hill, The Anderson Tapes, and Network and the flawless construction which marked 12 Angry Men, Serpico, and The Verdict. The opening and final sequences in particular are ingeniously conceived and in many ways they set the tone to Fail-Safe as clinically as Kubrick’s opening and closing sequences did to Dr Strangelove. On that note, it’s remarkable at how both films parallel each other while being almost completely opposite in tone. In many ways, Fail-Safe is the same story but told and shot from a more sombre point of view which is intriguing in its own right as Kubrick always said that he originally intended to tell his story that way but couldn’t due to the insanity of the entire scenario. Lumet and co. capture that sentiment profoundly right at the moment Fonda’s character glimpses the only solution to his most terrible of dilemmas. For in an insane world, the most rational decision must surely appear to be the most irrational. In essence, they pulled off what Kubrick felt was impossible.

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