President Fonda in Sidney Lumet’s FAIL-SAFE

The Family Business: Henry, left, with a shooting script of FAIL SAFE under his arm, Jane, and Peter with a script for LILITH.
The Family Business: Henry, left, with a shooting script of FAIL SAFE under his arm, Jane, and Peter with a script for LILITH.

Sidney Lumet’s 1964 political thriller Fail-Safe is one of greatest Cold War films to come out of the Cold War era. This bleak, atomic drama is a film on par with Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece Dr. Strangelove. Both films address the same topic of nuclear crisis, and due to their differences in approach perhaps it is unfair to compare one with the other, and yet, the comparisons are more or less inevitable–they were even released the same year. But whereas Kubrick’s acerbic Strangelove is so memorable for its burlesque indictment on the absurdity of war with deliciously dark, Brechtian theater, addressing nuclear fallout by not addressing it directly, Lumet’s stark Fail-Safe is a taut, straightforward, white-knuckled 90 minute real-time docudrama of what could happen should the world’s worst nightmare come to pass. Lumet openly discusses the harsh realities of what Kubrick leaves to the poetic image of Slim Pickens riding the bomb to its fate: namely, the molten flesh of millions of men, women and children.

Is one approach “better” than the other? Can they even be compared?

Even Kubrick was aware of the similarities. And he was far from happy about it. While both films were in production, a lawsuit was filed by Kubrick against Lumet’s film. The argument? Fail-Safe‘s source material was from a novel of the same name which, Kubrick argued, was plagiarized from the book Red Alert: The film that Strangelove was based on and to which Kubrick owned creative rights to. Kubrick got his way, Columbia threw their weight behind the marketing of the film, and Lumet’s film (also a Columbia picture) opened eight months later in Strangelove’s formidable shadow, crippling its box office…but not deterring its critical applause.


At the very least, Fail Safe is absolutely worthy of serious appraisal: Lumet’s film is both a product of its time yet transcends its time, and for that reason is timeless.


The plotline is simple: it is the peak of Cold War tensions between the United States and Russia and, mistakenly, a thermonuclear first-strike group of bombers is engaged in a mission to Moscow. They reach the designated “fail-safe” point (that is, fixed points of latitude and longitude on the Soviet border which are nuclear points of no return) awaiting the green light to proceed to their target. What happens is simple and catastrophic: a computer glitch gives the bombers the green light to proceed. At the same time, the Russians engage a radio jam, clusterfucking communication between the bombers and Strategic Air Command. The group commander, Colonel Grady, proceeds towards Moscow. Past the Fail-Safe point.

This is a feather in Fail Safe’s cap: the film addresses the complex relationship of man versus technology: a conflict very new in 1964, and still relevant here in 2013. Our dependence on it and its ultimate annihilation of us. The comedy, if there is any, is ironic: a technological glitch in the machines of our creation will see to our atomic Armageddon. It is man’s blind faith in his creation that leads to assured atomic annihilation.

Walter Matthau plays a revered political scientist, the same figure so immortalized by Peter Sellers’ Strangelove in Strangelove,  and here he is just as sinister… if not moreso. Whereas Sellers’ Strangelove is a cartoonish cariacture, Matthau is the real McCoy. An cold, methodical, calculating capitalist whose position is made quite clear by his own words: “I am not a poet. I am a political scientist who would rather see an American culture survive than a Soviet one.”

As the immensity of the situation dawns on the war department, and the question of HOW this could possibly happen, fingers are quickly pointed.

A congressman asks of the Generals the obvious question: “Who checks the checker?”

The response is instantaneous:

“The President,” says one general.

“No one,” says another.

The Congressman says, wryly, “It seems the only thing we can agree on is that no one is responsible.”

Enter President Henry Fonda.

Fonda simply is presidential–the guy whose mug you want on your lapel button. But Fonda himself was a complex man, and his idealistic American principles onscreen are not without controversy. As a young Illinois lawyer in Young Mr. Lincoln he is seemingly without guile, but very much a ruthless strategist. He was the best man for the presidential candidacy in The Best Man, but he was also a closeted homosexual who deceived his wife and his constituency. And one of the screen’s most definitive Americans, Tom Joad, in the definitive American story, The Grapes of Wrath, is an ex-convict who is absolutely capable of killing again. Fail-Safe requires such layered texture in its presidential figurehead, and Fonda is, once again, the best man for the job.


Larry Hagman portrays the Russian translator– the one man in Washington who is the literal voice of the Kremlin. The words of the Russian premier come through in halts, hesitations, hiccups, but are, ultimately, finite. The Russians are jamming the bombers, and are at first unconvinced by the president: such a claim about fail-safe has been thoroughly considered and it is suggested that such a claim could be a decoy for an actual attack on Moscow. Through Fonda’s persistent logic, the premier at last lifts the jam. It is a riveting (no other word for it) stretch of filmmaking comprised entirely of alternate cuts between extreme closeups of Fonda gripping the telephone, and Hagman shakily relaying the premier’s words. We can hear the premier speaking in Russian, and feel the drop of his tone from resolution to defeat.

But even though the Soviets lift their jam on the bomber’s radios, it is too late and Fonda is unable to convince Colonel Grady to turn back. Grady has been trained for just such a moment. He has been conditioned to expect such drastic theatrics from the enemy: parodying the President’s voice. His own wife is even bought to the war room, pleading over the radio for Grady to turn away. But this too, he believes, is a ruse. Grady switches off communication from the president after Fonda shouts, “Dammit Grady, this is the President!”

The hopelessness of the situation is apparent: Moscow will be destroyed by American bombers. And Lumet ramps up the energy in what feels like real-time. The tick of the atomic clock is frightening here, because the tick of this clock is palpable. The American president and Russian premier find themselves, on the phone together, at the worst moment in the history of mankind, to be allies. “No human is to blame,” comes the voice of the premier, through Hagman’s translation: they were both guilty to placing their trust in technology.

The premier’s final words and moments are over the phone with the president. A sudden, terrifying, high-pitched ringing fills the war room, and we know in that instant that all of Moscow, is gone.

And the president, weighing the scales of justice, knows what he must do. To avoid nuclear holocaust he orders what he considers “the only chance” for world peace.

He offers up the sacrifice of New York City in remuneration for what has happened to Moscow.

The president is not without personal sacrifice: his own wife is in New York.

Fail Safe

The destruction of the world’s largest metropolis is met in a chilling series of grainy black and white stills. First we see the cluster of skyscrapers in lower Manhattan through a radar screen. Moving images freeze frame into successive extreme close ups of daily American life at the moment of impact: children playing in the street, pedestrians walking, people laughing. And then a cut to black.

Even after recuperating from the shock of the ending, one cannot quite shake the sense of claustrophobia which lingers long after the final credits (which, by the way, undermine the audaciousness of the film with a disclaimer reassuring its audience that such a thing could never happen in reality). The viewer feels suffocated by the claustrophobia of the film. The sets are sparse and minimalist, the forced perspective pushing us face-forward into the sweating brow of our helpless, hopeless, once-great leaders. Lumet hearkens back to the similarly effective framing he used with Fonda in 12 Angry Men, another claustrophobic film of urgent morality, and preludes the similar confines of Network and Dog Day Afternoon. The film has no score of any kind, merely the ticker of machines the relentlessness tick of military clocks, and the words–the rawboned dialogue exchanged between futile men who are increasingly crushed by their futility as the film progresses.

There is nothing grand, nor beautiful, nor poetic about Fail-Safe. Nothing visually splendid to make it as memorable as Strangelove. Nothing so clever and witty; nothing to fill textbooks nor give theorists the delicious, meaty subtext to sustain lecture upon lecture upon lecture.

No. Fail Safe is naked, raw, and unflinching. It does not profess, portend, pretend, nor predicate itself in anyway. It is what it is. Strangelove makes sensous, passionate love to your senses. Fail-Safe strips you bare, delouses you, and slaps you in the face, and forces you to account for its actions. That is to say, our actions. Actions we’ve yet to really abandon even today.

It is one of Henry Fonda’s finest roles, one of Lumet’s finest films, and is worthy of consideration as a very worthy counterpart to Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.

This post is in conjunction with our very own Jill Blake’s Summer Under the Stars Blogathon, co-hosted by Michael Nazarawecyz at his blog Scribe Hard on Film!

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