Released just seven months after Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove and made by the studio responsible for them both, Fail-Safe received very little publicity and quickly faded into relative obscurity. Not surprisingly, the public found Kubrick's black comedy far more entertaining than Lumet's bleak and deadly serious drama. But, it's worth seeing both of these anti-cold war films since Fail-Safe is a rarity: a scary movie for intellectuals.
Walter Bernstein's script brings the film a thematic dimension unexplored by Strangelove: rather than human error - or madness - primarily inciting Armageddon, here it is a technical glitch, the slight malfunction of a single computer component, that leads to the war-room's machines erroneously informing a squadron of SAC bombers to drop their nuclear load on Moscow. Fail-Safe is not only concerned with the destruction of the planet but also with the inherent dangers of rapidly advancing technology.
Lumet draws good performances. A close-up schema is utilised for Henry Fonda's scenes in a bland bunker as the President, enhancing his already considerable presence. Good acting by Walter Matthau and Frank Overton help to create a frightening sense of realism. The story builds drama effectively. The slow beginning offers little warning of the horrendous moments towards the end. (I kept waiting for an intervention that would halt the bomber just short of its target and thought the film might conclude with a Mrs. Miniver-like sermon from the President. It's is what one expects from most studio productions. This film, and others like it from the same period such as The Bedford Incident and Seven Days in May, are, in spirit, independent of the mainstream.)
The close-ups, black and white photography, and a total lack of music heighten an already dominant feeling of claustrophobia and forces us to concentrate on the text. A non-diegetic, eerie high-pitched squeal is used from the outset and recurs from time-to-time, designed to put us on edge. When the characters finally hear the disturbing sound, we learn what it is: the sound of feedback down the phone-line after a nuclear holocaust.
While Dr. Strangelove ends with Mutually Assured Destruction, Fail-Safe has a "compromise" to deliver. Fonda's president, unable to stop the last bomb-carrying planes from nuking Moscow, manages, we assume, to appease the Russian folk with an eye-for-an-eye: self-enacted revenge. By ordering a General to drop one of their own bombs on New York, killing millions of people (including his wife), he makes one of the toughest and perhaps most unlikely decisions in fictive history. Is this situation believable? Or just unthinkable? For a person to have to make a decision like this in such a short period of time (all the events of the film occur within a day) is a burden no-one on Earth would desire nor wish upon another. Of course, now that the film is archived in history, our world powers are able to compare notes and rationalise for themselves in an emotional context what they would do in the same situation (as if they don't think about it every morning!).
Fail-Safe is a good counter to Strangelove as another film challenging the roles of those who control our fate. It is a solid documentary-like, gritty drama made by a reasonable filmmaker. But, it lacks brilliance. The drab sets, the pathetic aerial stock-footage (which, due to a lack of cooperation from the Department of Defense, are recycled shots of the same plane) is even worse thank Kubrick's incredibly dodgy props (which serve another purpose, check out a Kubrick review for more), and the repetitive cinematography are low standards in comparison to the tense script and tight direction. Dr. Strangelove, on the other hand, is one of cinema's great films, directed by a virtuoso at his peak and enriched with some of the best performances its cast ever gave. I guess it all depends on how you like your thermonuclear wars. Personally, if we are all going to go anyway, I would like to go laughing.
Review by James Malcolm Brown from the Internet Movie Database.