During the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union the world sat around as the two superpowers constantly increased and intensified their respective nuclear arsenals. Beyond any sane tipping point, the discussions eventually became doomsday scenarios, with global obliteration should either side spark a conflict. If either side side sensed an immediate threat to their country it was clear that there would not be any winner left remaining.
When it came to films anyone could be forgiven if only Stanley Kubrick‘s Dr. Strangelove came to mind as it was, and remains, the categorical classic comedy on the subject. There have been a number of movies of a more serious nature – Seven Days in May comes to mind – but most have been action oriented and with spies and conspiracy theories as the driving forces thrown in for suspense. But there exists a film that in many ways is the exact opposite of Dr. Strangelove, plays out pretty much the same scenario, is just as good and yet has been largely forgotten by cinephiles and history.
Directed by Sidney Lumet, a masterful filmmaker in his own right, Fail-Safe is the definitive movie that depicts the threat of Cold War nuclear proliferation, and is presented without comedy, action sequences or surreal plot devices. Instead the drama is played out in monotone meetings with sombre faced dignitaries, sweaty brows, and tense knuckle wrangling when the unthinkable becomes imminent.
The premise of the movie has military brass conducting a presentation to dignitaries visiting the Department of Defense central command and explaining how airspace is constantly monitored by radar. Any anomalies elicit the deployment of retaliatory aircraft which, under usual circumstances, are simply recalled when the anomalies turn out to be stray airliners or other radar phenomena. They reassure everyone that fail safes have been put in place to ensure that should threats not be discounted, a presidential order is still required to have a counterattack proceed to any final target. Of course the scenario of an errant airliner then plays out live as everyone watches the big board and a cascading sequence of events lead to a blissfully ignorant rogue squadron, believing that the US is already under attack, dutifully continue to carry out orders to bomb Moscow . This leaves the president with some dire choices and the fate of humanity in his hands.
What makes Fail-Safe that much more interesting is when we compare it to Dr. Strangelove, noting the many parallels and yet at the same time being orthogonally different. The parallels begin with scenes depicting the central command showing symbolic planes against an outlay of a world map which eventually becomes concentrated on that last, lone squadron heading in with misguided intentions. We also have the lone strategist who continually posits that the situation, no matter how it changes, should call for an immediate first strike since war is imminent. And finally both have a president that has to try to convince the Soviet leader that it was all a mistake and that everything is being done to avert the drop.
But where this movie gets turned on its head when compared to Dr. Strangelove is just as interesting. Instead of having a comical Peter Sellers as president we have the stone cold portrayal of Henry Fonda. Instead of having George C. Scott as the warmonger, we have Walter Matthau, which is doubly ironic given that both of these actors were playing non-traditional roles, Scott doing comedy and Matthau playing a heavy. The role reversal continues with comedian Dom Deluise in a very minor early role but one that performs a critical act with all eyes on him.
The truth is, if you just want to watch a movie about imminent nuclear war you will be more than satisfied with Dr. Strangelove. But if you want to see a realistic movie that will scare the bejesus out of you as you consider how the fate of the world can be left in the hands of one person, the President of the United States (notwithstanding the fact that in a few weeks buffoon Donald Trump will be that man), you have to watch Fail-Safe.