Judge Daniel MacDonald takes a trip back in time to the Cold War. Don't worry: he brought a jacket—just not a red one.
The World on the Brink of Accidental War—Unfolding Live!
On April 9, 2000, Fail Safe, an adaptation of the 1962 novel and remake of a 1964 Sidney Lumet (Prince of the City) film, was performed on live television. It was an historic event, introduced by none other than legendary newsman Walter Cronkite, who remarked that this was the first such telecast in thirty-nine years, and starring a formidable cast. Now Fail Safe comes to DVD.
Facts of the Case
It's the height of the Cold War, and the United States has several bomber groups circling near targets in the USSR. When an unidentified flying object (sadly not crewed by aliens) shows up in US airspace, the bombers follow standard procedure and maneuver to their 'fail safe' points, specific locations where they are to await instructions to either stand down or continue on to their targets—once given the order to attack, these pilots are virtually impossible to recall, under strict instructions to disregard any further communication for fear of Soviet interference. An irreversible computer glitch gives that order, creating the conditions for a global catastrophe that threatens to spark nuclear war.
Frantic efforts to recall or otherwise stop the bomber group involve military commanders facing the unpleasant task of cooperating with the other side, a congressman trying to understand how things could go so wrong, a theorist who proposes the Soviets will surely surrender in the face of superior American firepower, and the US President, who must make an unimaginable choice.
The high-powered cast includes Richard Dreyfuss (Jaws), George Clooney (Solaris), Don Cheadle (Crash), Harvey Keitel (Reservoir Dogs), Hank Azaria (Heat), Sam Elliott (The Big Lebowski), James Cromwell (LA Confidential) and Noah Wyle (The Myth of Fingerprints).
Directed by Stephen Frears (The Queen), this is a thoroughly engrossing, tense, and effective piece of drama given an added sense of immediacy from its ambitious live performance.
The tale is chilling in its simplicity. The device that malfunctions is supposed to be the system's fail safe—an engineering term meaning that, if it does fail, it will fail to a safe condition. Unfortunately, the designers assumed that the device could never be triggered except with intent, and so the fail safe prevents any outside party (such as the Soviet Union) from sending these effective bombers home. No one imagined a situation where the Americans might need to recall their own planes.
The piece takes place in four main locations: the War Room, the Pentagon (both of which feature a ridiculous but necessary giant map for tracking plane positions), the President's office, and the cockpit of the lead bomber. Several levels of expertise are represented in each location, facilitating fairly natural sounding exposition, and also allowing for differing points of view to clash and brainstorm over this seemingly unsolvable problem. An almost laughable degree of paranoia about the capabilities of the Soviet enemy, including the assumption that they could easily misdirect American equipment or imitate any voice, is given the serious consideration that it would have had at the time, and we just want to yell at the screen for how wrong things go. This is a real nail-biter, intelligent and gripping throughout its brisk 84 minute running time, right up to its jaw-dropping conclusion. Further, it's a clear rail against nuclear weapons, its sentiment as prescient today as it must have been in the 60s.
Interestingly, the original Fail-Safe came out the same year as Stanley Kubrick's brilliant Dr. Strangelove, and both feature a fairly similar plot, with the American military forced to cooperate with their Soviet counterparts when an unrecallable bomber heads toward Russia. But where Strangelove uses satire to make its anti-war points, Fail Safe plays it straight. A chilling list of countries with nuclear capabilities appears at the story's end, a nice touch that tells us that while this may be a Cold War tale, we're not out of the woods yet. Few stories could be told equally well as both comedy and tragedy.
The technical production is somewhat unpolished: while problem areas are generally few and far between, there are times when dialogue is mixed almost inaudibly low, microphones pickup clothing rustles, etc. But rather than being serious distractions, these elements are brief reminders that we are watching essentially a play with impressively cinematic staging, quickly forgotten as the story forges ahead.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Although when the movie starts, Keitel wakes up in bed and spends so much time coming to his senses that I began to wonder if he really was asleep (method acting?). These are all seasoned pros, and under Frears' strong direction each character is clearly defined with little time to develop character. The biggest standout is Dreyfuss as the US President, evincing a perfect blend of dignity and authority, and delivering dialogue with natural ease. Clooney, too, turns in characteristically solid work as bomber pilot Jack Grady, with an especially heartbreaking scene between the pilot and his son being one of the most memorable.
What I find especially remarkable is the lighting scheme of cinematographer John A. Alonzo (Scarface). Because it's live, he would have had to position lights to be suitable for all angles taken over the course of the picture, but in shot after shot, there is no sign of compromise. Using high-definition cameras in rich black & white, the time period is evoked with perfectly placed shadows and intense framing. This is a beautifully lit piece of work.
The video is of decent quality with no noticeable ringing or compression flaws, but some areas of mosquito noise are present. Unfortunately, while framed at 1.78:1, Fail Safe is presented in its original letterboxed form rather than in an anamorphic transfer, which means that the picture is not as detailed or as sharp as it could have been. Audio is clear, crisp mono, which is appropriate both for the time period the film is evoking and the lack of ambient noise and music—we don't miss the stereo because there's not much to miss (indeed, there is no score at all).
The complete lack of special features (other than a theatrical teaser for Ocean's Thirteen) is a missed opportunity. Rehearsal footage, interviews, and an audio commentary would've been welcome additions here—this was a momentous television event, and one would have expected a few commemorative special features.
Fail Safe is a fine piece of drama, notable both for its technical achievement and its dramatic, enthralling script. If you haven't seen it, rent it at the very least; fans will want this one in their collection.
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