Fail-Safe (1964)

A counterpart to the farcical Dr. Strangelove (1964), which was released in the same year, and a precursor of sorts to WarGames (1983), Fail-Safe portrays a dark vision extrapolating on both mutual Cold War paranoia and the military’s increased reliance on, and decreasing mastery of, machines. A technical defect during a routine maneuver causes a flight of bombers to receive orders to drop their nuclear payload on Moscow. A combination of paranoia on both the American and the Soviet side as well as continued technical failure makes it impossible to recall the planes. Now people in three locations – the White House, the Pentagon, and Strategic Air Command – need to figure out a way to deal with the situation and avoid all-out nuclear war.

As one might guess from the premise, the film is utterly humourless. That’s not a bad thing, particularly in light of the existence of Stanley Kubrick’s already-mentioned film, which looks at the exact same issue with a similar character configuration, but through a satirical lens. The two films complement each other.

The tonal lack of cheerfulness is underscored (no pun intended) by the complete lack of music, the stark black and white photography, and the controlled editing with many close-ups and long takes. As a result, the film’s mood starts uncomfortable and suspenseful and grows increasingly tense as it becomes more and more unlikely that the bombers can be stopped. The actors, including Henry Fonda as the President and a young Larry Hagman as his translator, do their part not to let the audience off the hook with any expression or linereading that might break the tension.

I wasn’t alive back then, but I’m guessing this is what it must have felt like during the Cuban missile crisis and its aftermath, and Fail-Safe is a powerful warning to the two superpowers (but particularly the audience at home, in the United States) that Mutually Assured Destruction is not a game, but a highly dangerous policy with potentially deadly and unforeseen consequences.


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