Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: It’s all disaster movies, in honor of Independence Day (the holiday and the movie) and also in light of the real-life disaster movie happening outside our windows.
In Fail Safe, a ’60s doomsday thriller by Sidney Lumet, American bomber planes armed with nuclear weapons fly beyond their fail-safe point toward Moscow; they have been erroneously ordered to drop the bomb, and trained to carry out their mission no matter what. Dr. Strangelove follows a similar chain of events, but the sudden threat of nuclear holocaust was triggered there by a mad, war-mongering general, whereas the crisis here happens for the more banal reason of mechanical error. Oddly enough, Columbia Pictures released both films in 1964. Despite positive reviews, Fail Safe, which came out second, thanks to Stanley Kubrick’s legal maneuvering, seemed forever destined to live in Strangelove’s shadow, in part because its earnest melodrama felt old-school compared to Kubrick’s cutting satire. Yet there’s something newly resonant about the claustrophobic desperation of Lumet’s film in these times of powerlessness and uncertainty. We know too well what it’s like to witness disaster from afar, on our screens, bunkered down as the walls close in.
Based on the novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, Fail Safe follows several political and military figures scrambling to prevent the bombers from successfully reaching their target, a catastrophic act of aggression that would leave Soviet leaders with no choice but to retaliate. Ironically, the hyper-competence of the pilots, and the very sophisticated technologies meant to protect the nation, are to blame. For the most part, the action is localized to a few tight spaces that seem to grow smaller and smaller as panic mounts. At Strategic Air Command headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska, a giant monitor maps the bombers’ movements; a new Soviet jamming system blocks its attempts to contact the pilots by radio, and fighter jets try but fail to knock out the rogue planes. In the cramped Situation Room, Walter Matthau’s hawkish civilian advisor sounds off on the relative benefits of striking first, mechanically weighing the human cost against the “greater good” of preserving American civilization. Snide and treacherous, he embodies the logic of nuclear war strategy that created these fraught conditions in the first place.
The imprecisions of translation and technology undermine the important nuances of human communication. Lumet conveys the bracing immediacy and tension of negotiations with the Soviets through flurried, quick editing, as well as Gerald Hirschfeld’s stark cinematography, an assembly of jarring close-ups that home in on the film’s many distressed, sweating faces. Fear of the unknown trembles beneath the images. Fail Safe offers only quick glimpses of the outside world, allowing the imagination to run wild, and absent a musical score, the blips and screeches of technological processes—and failures—overlay menacing cues atop long stretches of jittery silence.
Henry Fonda plays the president, tasked with convincing the Soviet premier that this is all an accident while confined to an underground bunker with nothing but a table, a telephone, and a Russian interpreter (Larry Hagman). In many ways, Fonda’s altruistic, level-headed president is too good to be true: To prevent further escalation, he promises the self-inflicted bombing of New York City should Moscow be destroyed. Millions of Americans will die, including his wife, but it will prevent the deaths of hundreds of millions more. Our cynical view of politics makes the incredible decency of this president seem like a fantasy, because we perceive humanistic values as divorced from the game of politics. Fail Safe envisions a world in which the instruments of power actually feel the pain and suffering of others, and act on that distress fully cognizant of the hurt without ever needing to see the bloody proof. That makes it a bit more unbelievable than Strangelove, absence of bomb-riding yokels aside.