At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Fail-Safe “64”

MPAA Rating: NR/ Genre: Thriller/ Stars: Henry Fonda, Dan O’Herlihy, Walter Matthau, Frank Overton, Fritz Weaver, Edward Binns, Larry Hagman, William Hansen, Russell Hardie, Russell Collins, Sorrell Booke, Nancy Berg, John Connell, Frank Simpson, Hildy Parks, Janet Ward, Dom DeLuise, Dana Elcar, Stewart Germain, Louise Larabee, Frieda Altman/ Runtime: 112 minutes

I think it is safe to say that when the slice of cinema I am reviewing today, Sidney Lumet’s chilling thriller Fail Safe first made its way to audiences in the long gone ago period of time known as October 1964 it would not surprise me in the least to discover that it absolutely chilled them to their very core and then some. A belief I hold due to both the fact that this slice of cinema opened in the recent aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis which had literally seen America get the closest to a full-blown nuclear conflict that it has ever seen and the fact that we came that close to complete and utter annihilation may have still been a bit present in the minds of audience members. Thus imagine how chilling it must have been for audiences to see this taut and bleak look at various people in the US government and military structures’ desperate attempts to try and call off an accidental atomic strike. I mean if nothing else it would have felt like a scab being removed off a wound that had only just begun to heal. Thankfully for my psyche and peace of mind I wasn’t even around then so I didn’t have to deal with all of this chaos. Having said that however, I do have first-hand accounts from family members who are able to remember the moments during the 80s when the arms race heated up once more thus raising renewed alarm about both nuclear missile stockpiling and complete and utter decimation of our species. As a result, Hollywood decided to take our fears into account and give us unnerving films like the highly underrated Miracle Mile and The Day After which show either the eve of a nuclear attack or the horrific fallout of nuclear Armageddon and most definitely have always managed to send a chill or 5 down my spine whenever I’ve watched them. Yet just when things looked dire a miracle happened as not only did the Berlin Wall *finally* crumble, but the Soviet Union did as well and as a result the terror of our species annihilating itself seemingly quelled. Sure there were still quite a few problems giving humanity grief, but at least mutually assured nuclear destruction was no longer on the list. Sadly in the time since then history has decided to repeat itself with Iran and North Korea causing concern and Russia once more on the proverbial war path. As a result, we now see that not only is nuclear annihilation a prevalent issue once more, but that paranoia from the 60s and 80s has also come back with a vengeance as well. Yet even when taking all of this into the equation there is no denying that this slice of cinema is one that is still a chillingly effective nightmare in every sense of the word. Indeed from the taut direction, the terrific work by the other departments behind the camera, and the potent work by the cast in front of the camera, Fail-Safe is not just a phenomenally well-made slice of cinema; rather, it’s also a riveting look at something that the odds of happening may not be as far-fetched as much as we would like to believe to the contrary…

The plot is as follows: Fail-Safe gets its chilling nightmare underway as we witness that what is supposed to be yet another run of the mill work day at that lovely government installation known as the Pentagon swiftly is thrown a horrific and surprising curve ball when a unidentified flying object makes its way to the airspace above the United States. Yet although the object turns out to be an airliner that is drastically off course, we see things go from bad yet manageable to worse when, even though the military has managed to put in place a fail-safe (hence the title of the film) system that is supposed to keep accidental encroachments into Russian airspace completely out of the picture, an American squadron of jets is inadvertently given an order to go and drop a nuclear bomb on no less a target than Moscow. Thus as officials at the Pentagon and at the U.S. military base where the jet flew out from desperately try not only to determine how this order got out to the planes, but also how to call off the bombers before millions of innocent people are wiped off the face of the Earth, we see no less a figure than the President desperately try to avert this nightmare through an uneasy and very tense collection of calls he is to have with no less a person than the leader of the Soviet Union. Thus the question soon arises: can the bombers be called back before they reach their destination, but if they cannot then what exactly can the President do in order to convince the Soviets that this was an accident and thereby avoid a full-on nuclear war? That I will leave for you to discover for yourself dear reader…..

Now right off the bat, I will say that Fail Safe is easily of the most thrilling and taut “what-if scenario” movies that I have ever seen. Yet if you are someone who sees this movie and thinks “oh this could never happen”, props must be given to film helmer (and one of my favorite directors) Sidney Lumet, his immensely talented screenwriter Walter Bernstein, and an absolutely fantastic cast for not only doing such an incredible job that they all do a chillingly effective job at reminding us just how plausible this situation really was and still is. Indeed all it would take is a single teeny tiny hiccup in the power, one teeny tiny miscalculation, and every single countermeasure and seemingly impenetrable barrier both physical and in the realm of cyberspace that have been carefully designed by some of the most intelligent people in America to keep such a situation from occurring will mean exactly jack squat and millions will die and no degree of accepting blame, mass panic, or frantic negotiating will be enough to put the genie back in the bottle. Yet although props must be given to this slice of cinema for being an absolute nail biter in every sense, equal praise must be given to Lumet for how he manages to construct an ominous vibe that builds slowly but surely as we get ever closer to the terrifying possibility that a nuclear strike might actually occur. Indeed watching the finished film it really does seem like Lumet took inspiration from filmmakers from both Europe and Japan as this film doesn’t look anything like a typical Hollywood slice of cinema nor for that matter is it made in the quasi-sorta documentary style Lumet has made other movies before like his crime masterpiece from the 70s Dog Day Afternoon. Indeed much in the same vein as the original Manchurian Candidate from the 60s, this film opens with a title card telling us where we are and the time before cutting to a recurring nightmare that one of the characters has been having for a while and then choosing to wrap the film up with a sequence that is also very avant-garde that is terrifying simple yet clear as ice in what it is trying to convey. Yet in addition we see that this film also employs little to no musical accompaniment, limiting the action after a while to only a handful of highly claustrophobic-inducing settings, and filming this in black and white in successful attempts to make this film as realistic as possible. Yes I know the first 20 minutes give or take of this film might be a bit dull, but trust me when I say that everything you see is vital to set the table for the frenzied, chaotic, heated, and just downright chilling circumstances that make up the rest of the movie to say nothing of the storm that had only merely been on the horizon coming to shore and completely and utterly enveloping the characters and turning their world horrifically upside down.

Now in terms of the cast, I think it should be said that every single person involved manages to bring no less their absolute best to their respective parts. Indeed Henry Fonda, as is typical for Henry Fonda, brings a gravitas and magnetism to his role of the unnamed President which makes his work in this an interesting double feature with the work Fonda did as one of the most famous Presidents of all time a quarter of a century prior in a film called Young Mr. Lincoln. Indeed from the moment he appears on screen, Fonda brings an ironclad will yet also respectful thoughtfulness to the part and not once does he ever seem artificial in his role. Indeed a fair degree of this film’s success was in finding an actor who could make this figure someone who could be a human being during a crisis such as this. Suffice it to say that Fonda, much as he did on more than one occasion in his iconic career, comes to the plate and knocks this role completely out of the park with ease. Yet besides Fonda, we see that this film is also a wonderful showcase for some other terrific talents in significant parts. This includes one of my favorite character actors Fritz Weaver here making the jump from television programs such as memorable turns in several Twilight Zone episodes to feature films and he actually handles the transition fairly well in his turn as the 2nd in command at the base who as the film goes on starts to lose his grip a little bit. We also see a trinity of actors in the forms of Walter Matthau, Larry Hagman, and Dom DeLuise who, despite being more regarded for their comedic chops or being in an iconic soap operaesque show called Dallas, all managing to give truly wonderful dramatic efforts here with particular regard to the work done by Hagman as the President’s Russian interpreter during his talks with the premiere of the Soviet Union on the phone and Matthau as a smug anticommunist professor who is in the Pentagon delivering a lecture and who tries to use the crisis as an opportunity to get the military to wipe out the Soviet Union once and for all respectively. Suffice it to say that Lumet, who always had a skill at picking the right actors for the right parts, strikes no less than 24 karat acting gold here much to the benefit of the film.

All in all even when faced with a low budget and other slight teeny tiny flaws in the overall film itself, there can be no denying the power that Fail-Safe still manages to hold going on 6 decades since its initial release in theaters. Yes this slice of cinema often gets tragically overlooked in favor of the very similar masterpiece from Stanley Kubrick that is Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb which was also released that same year. However, when you look at the taut yet dependably great work done by Lumet at the helm, the terrific work done by the other departments behind the camera, and the truly electrifying work done by a brilliantly assembled and immensely talented cast, that really is a shame. Indeed it really truly cannot be said enough that not only is Fail-Safe a film worth seeking out and watching, but that the scenario at the heart of it and the observations it makes about humanity are really truly just as truthful and terrifying in the here and the now as they were when the film was first released all those years ago. On a scale of 1-5 I give Fail-Safe “64” a solid 4 out of 5.