Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Fail Safe (2000)

Fail Safe, a novel written at the very height of the Cold War in 1962 by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, was a frightening proposition; detailing the dilemmas faced by U.S. leaders and Pentagon officers when a malfunction on a bomber plane's 'fail safe' box instructs a pilot to nuke Moscow. How can you raise the alarm when you've so successfully trained your squadrons to ignore all orders other than those given electronically by said titular box? How can you convince the Soviets, your ideological foe, that planes with nuclear capabilities are heading for their airspace because of a mistake?

This chilling story soon attracted the interest of Hollywood and, in 1964, Sidney Lumet and scriptwriter Walter Bernstein brought their adaptation to the screen for Columbia Pictures. Unfortunately it coincided with Columbia's other big release of that year, Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb, Stanley Kubrick's inspired satire that was based on a very similar novel, Red Alert by Peter Bryant, the nom de plume of Peter George (indeed, so similar was Fail Safe to 1958's Red Alert that George sued Wheeler and Burdick for plagiarism, settling out of court) Opening some eight months before Kubrick's film, at the director's behest, Fail Safe failed at the box office. Sometimes I guess all you want to do with a threat so terrifyingly real is laugh at it; Dr Strangelove was a deserved success.

But Fail Safe was too important to just fade away, it still had so much to say and refused to become a footnote in Hollywood, or indeed American, history.  Word of mouth grew over the years for Lumet's  film to make a respectable 'cult' favourite specifically among the liberal left - one of whom was George Clooney who was alleged to insist guests at his home watch the film.

But it was more than more appreciation for Clooney and in 2000 he executive produced a TV movie adaptation for America's CBS network with a distinctive twist; the film would be broadcast live - the first time CBS had aired a live drama since 1960 (this revival of live TV would later be replicated by BBC4 in the UK with the 2005 adaptation of The Quatermass Experiment). It was a bold move and one that is naturally, markedly different from other productions; the modern generation, accustomed to the slick features of Hollywood or modern TV, could be alienated by such a theatrical approach and, if some quarters were, then too bad for them. As a fan of vintage TV I'm more familiar with its stagy roots so had no issues with this particular gamble and I personally believe this novel approach amplified the tension integral to Bernstein's script and the story as a whole.  When you're presenting a story about the biggest thing that could possibly go wrong in the modern world, the glitches of live TV add an accelerated duality to the context of the story and any fluffs or missed cues ultimately seem small beer in comparison.  

Clooney hired British director Stephen Frears, who cut his teeth on TV productions in the UK, shot the thing in black and white and keeping all period details and assembled a strong cast of American talent to populate the story of politicians, advisors, Pentagon personnel, experts and airmen. They included Richard Dreyfuss with a heartfelt and twitchy turn as the beleaguered President and Harvey Keitel as the high ranking voice of reason who seems to almost prophesize the impending destruction from the film's opening minute. Each actor gives their all and equips themselves incredibly well for the challenge, producing believable sweaty browed, dry mouthed performances for the plot itself. I could wax lyrical about many of the stars on offer here or wonder just how Norman Lloyd hasn't aged a day since St Elsewhere concluded (!) but as many before me will invariably and rightly have sung the praises of Dreyfuss or even Clooney - starring as the bomber pilot - I will instead single out Brian Dennehy in his role of Gen. Bogan of Strategic Air Command; the veteran actor never puts a foot wrong and delivers a note perfect performance. It's also nice to see the grand news anchor Walter Cronkite introduce the piece at the behest of producer/star Clooney.

Fail Safe takes the sobering, chilling prospect of several million people being killed borne from a catastrophic mistake and the hard, almost unthinkable decisions made in the ensuing negotiations with a perverse logic, whilst never losing the personal raw edge to sucker punch the viewer.

Like the utterly shittifying Threads, this is the type of production that makes you sign up to CND if you haven't already. Clooney knows this and, in a closing caption, ensures we do too by bringing us back to the present day and reminding us just how many countries currently have nuclear capabilities. Fail Safe may have been about The Cold War but the threat at its core is still sadly all too relevant.

You can watch the whole thing on YouTube.

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