I’d guess that when most people think of the movie “Fail-Safe,” they think of the 1964 Sidney Lumet film starring Henry Fonda; you know, the one with the hyphen in the middle, and the one that became controversial for its coming out the same year as Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove,” which had a similar theme. But what we’ve got here is the lesser-known, 2000, made-for-TV version of the Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler novel, the one without the hyphen. It’s not quite as gripping or suspenseful as the earlier theatrical movie, but with a great cast, it’s almost as good.
Now, here’s the thing: The producers of this TV version did it live. It was the first live television movie since the old days of things like “Playhouse 90” decades earlier. It was a gutsy project, spearheaded by George Clooney, who also co-stars. He sold the idea to Warner Bros. and CBS Television and came up with an all-star cast. Moreover, in tribute to those old live shows of the 1950s and 60s, he convinced the network not only to shoot live, but to shoot in black-and-white. Personally, I think that was going a step too far, taking the enterprise as much into the field of nostalgia as drama, but it does not detract from the story’s tension or suspense, so it does not do any real harm (unless you hate black-and-white photography, in which case I won’t be able to convince you to watch this one, no matter how good it is).
The 2000 “Fail Safe” uses a teleplay by Walter Bernstein, who also did the screenplay for the 1964 movie, although this newer adaptation is slightly shorter by about twenty-eight minutes. So, yes, the two productions are quite similar and invite comparisons. Let me just say that since I have lived longer with the ’64 version, I still find it superior; but this television dramatization has the virtues of conciseness on its side and the frisson that only a live performance can provide.
During the Cold War, the U.S. had bombers in the air at all times, armed with nuclear weapons in case of an enemy attack. The term “fail safe” refers to a fixed point to which commanders could direct their bombers until they either issued an order to strike or to return home. The story is about a tragic, fictional accident in our strategic defense plans wherein a technical error mistakenly causes our planes to head off and attack Russia. It seems a jet airliner went off course, causing the defense system to go into full alert, and American commanders are able to recall all of the planes to their fail-safe points except one bomber group, which gets a faulty signal to bomb Moscow. Voice commands don’t work because the Air Force has trained its pilots to ignore verbal messages (that the enemy could fake). There is no way to bring them back, so the only alternative is to shoot them down. The President gives the instructions for both the Americans and the Russians to destroy them, which almost happens. But one plane gets through. Now what? If we blow up Moscow, the Russians will retaliate with their own nuclear arsenal, and we will have destroyed half the world. The President must make a second, crucial, and horrifying decision. What if we show the Russians our good intentions by blowing up a major American city ourselves? Will that stop all-out nuclear devastation?
The story’s premise is indeed terrifying. It’s a cautionary tale about the futility of arms buildups, and during the Cold War the threat of nuclear proliferation was real. Now, with Russia an ally, the threat no longer may appear so great, but as the film’s epilogue points out, in 2000 there were nine countries with nuclear capabilities. Today, we see the possibility of even more countries getting the bomb. One mistake, and it could trigger Armageddon, a scary possibility.
Yes, as you might expect, this live production is stagey and talky. The filmmakers keep the backdrops and properties simple, almost stark, and music nonexistent, again in keeping with old television shows but also in highlighting the acting rather than fancy set designs or musical scoring. And it is with the acting that the show thrives. Let me list some of the actors for you and their roles.
Richard Dryfuss plays the President of the United States, the part Henry Fonda had in the earlier movie. Maybe Dryfuss doesn’t have quite the stage presence of Fonda, but he does have an intensity that grows as the narrative unfolds. Noah Wyle plays Buck, his Russian interpreter. Brian Dennehy is General Bogan, the sensible but frustrated commander in the control room, helpless to do anything about the unfolding disaster. John Diehl is Col. Cascio, his second-in-command and a confirmed hawk, who, like Professor Groeteschele (Hand Azaria), thinks the U.S. ought to seize this opportunity to attack Russia with all we’ve got before they have a chance to retaliate. Whether we made an honest mistake or not, Cascio and Groeteschele think it presents a convenient way to rid the world of Communism.
Harvey Keitel plays Brigadier General Black, a sensible yet frustrated military commander who will not abide a senseless war and millions dead. James Cromwell is Gordon Knapp, a systems engineer who helped design the program that has now gone awry; Norman Lloyd is Defense Secretary Swenson, who argues for reason and order; and Sam Elliott is Congressman Raskob, an incidental onlooker. Finally, George Clooney and Don Cheadle play the pilot and copilot of the bomber that gets through to Moscow, a pair loyally doing their duty, trained to ignore verbal commands, mechanically going about their business.
Stephen Frears (“Dangerous Liaisons,” “The Grifters,” “Mary Reilly,” “High Fidelity,” “The Queen”) directed the piece, and given the limitations of a live, stage-bound, talky play does a remarkable job turning it into a genuine thriller. By the conclusion of “Fail Safe,” the tension is profound, and even knowing exactly how this drama is going to unfold, we find ourselves sweating the outcome. “Fail Safe” is well acted, exciting, timely, relevant, and agonizing. For fans of live theater, especially, it is a definite treat.
The filmmakers capture the action live with high-definition television cameras, and Warner Bros. offer it on disc in a 1.77:1 ratio, non-anamorphic widescreen. If you have a widescreen TV, you either blow it up to fit your set, or you watch it as I did with black bars top, bottom, and sides. The image is smaller in this arrangement, but the picture is sharper. Indeed, the black-and-white photography shows up quite well, with good clarity and strong contrasts, object delineation fairly crisp and clean.
The sound engineers present the audio in a 2.0 signal that is something of a cross between straight monaural and limited stereo. Most of the time, we hear sound only from the center channel, but during scenes in the control room and in the war room, there is a touch of ambient noise, voices and such, in the rear channels. Otherwise, we get mainly a midrange response, well focused, contributing greatly to the realism of the dialogue. To its disadvantage, the live microphones also pick up a background hum that you can hear clearly during quiet passages; however, you get used to it, and before long, you are no longer aware of it.
There are practically no extras here. English is the only spoken language. There is a widescreen theatrical trailer for the 2007 movie “Oceans 13,” with George Clooney. And there are twenty-five scene selections, but no chapter insert.
A live television production after all those years was a daring experiment, and thanks to an accomplished cast “Fail Safe” pays off. However, there is still the question of the 1964 movie to consider, unless you so like this screenplay you want them both. Perhaps a compromise would be to buy one and rent the other. My choice would be buying the theatrical movie and renting this television version, but in either case the story is worth one’s respect.