Sidney Lumet, Walter Bernstein, Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, 1964

Thanks to a computer error, an American bomber squadron is on its way to nuke Moscow. Can WWIII be averted?

I thought I knew the deal with Fail-Safe. It was the serious version of Dr. Strangelove — identical premise, but given a straightforward, whitebread treatment, complete with cop-out ending. The Strangelove team had successfully sued to have the opening of Fail-Safe delayed due to the remarkable plot similarities, and after Strangelove, no one could take a movie like Fail-Safe seriously. I only watched it for the sake of completism: I'd heard it mentioned in apocalypse class, saw the DVD at the library, and figured that even if it turned out to be as bad as I expected, it'd at least make for an entertaining writeup. So I checked it out.

And I'm very glad I did, because I was dead wrong. This is a great movie. And it's all the more impressive because anyone could afford to make this. It's just a bunch of guys sitting around in offices looking at screens and talking, with a little bit of stock footage spliced in. But it works, because Fail-Safe's strengths — intelligent dialogue; stark, handsome photography; unusual, effective editing; good performances — don't require a huge budget. The parallels to Dr. Strangelove are indeed remarkable, with phone calls between the American president and the Soviet premier, crazy military officers, and a Herman Kahn caricature (here played by Walter Matthau). But, much to my surprise, this doesn't make for an invidious comparison. Fail-Safe is smart, riveting, and in its own way, audacious.

In Fail-Safe, we know that the president and generals aren't taking the lives of others lightly when they make decisions. The movie makes a big deal of the fact that when they draw up war scenarios, they deliberately decide not to evacuate their own families from the cities that will be bombed; they must share the sacrifice along with everyone else. This is, of course, not the case today. Bush was willing to devastate 2500 American families and 100,000 Iraqi ones in order to prosecute his war. Would he have made the same decision if before declaring war he had had to shoot Laura and Jenna and Barbara in the head?

It is worth noting that early on in Fail-Safe, there is an impasse between the bellicose professor played by Matthau and one of the generals, leading one character to observe with a chuckle that it's unusual for the civilian to be the warmonger and the military man to be the dove. And again, today this is far from unusual. The history of the 21st century to date has been dictated by chickenhawks.

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