The Sum of All Fears: Sidney Lumet’s "Fail-Safe"

The under-appreciated "straight" version of "Dr. Strangelove," starring Henry Fonda, comes to MUBI.
Michael Pattison

MUBI is showing Sidney Lumet's Fail-Safe (1964) May 7 - June 6 and Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) May 8 - June 7, 2016 in the UK.

“Yes, it’s a hard day. Goodbye, my friend.”

— General Koniev, Fail-Safe

“Jack, this is Helen.”

— Helen Grady, Fail-Safe

Timing was everything during the Cold War. A matter of life and death, democracy or communism, us versus them. And, for true megalomaniacs, my motion picture against your motion picture. In January 1963, Stanley Kubrick filed a lawsuit to halt the production of Fail-Safe, an upcoming adaptation of the recently published novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler. A political thriller about nuclear war, it was being directed by Sidney Lumet and starred Henry Fonda. Kubrick’s charge was plagiarism: Fail-Safe, the director claimed, was a copy in all but name of Peter George’s Red Alert, the 1958 novel that he himself was busy adapting as Dr. Strangelove. Nonsense, retorted Fail-Safe’s authors: they had begun their book in 1957. Kubrick settled for a theatrical release schedule that guaranteed his film would be in cinemas long before its rival. 

It worked. Released on the final weekend of January 1964, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb held the top spot at the U.S. box office for three weeks, and was the year’s 14th highest grossing film. Fail-Safe, released in October 1964, was toppled by Sam Fuller’s The Naked Kiss after just one week in theaters. Though generally well received by critics, it was a financial flop—a fortune attributed, inevitably, to Kubrick’s intervention. Cut to a yellow-mopped Peter Sellers rising from a wheelchair, crying Mein Fuhrer! in Cartoon Deutsch. The problem here was that farce preceded tragedy. Lumet’s eighth feature played things straight when they had already been satirized, when they could no longer prompt anything other than laughter. 

Strangely, such a fate seems somehow appropriate for a film all about acting fast and still being too late. Burdick and Wheeler’s bestseller was originally published as a three-part serial in the Saturday Evening Post during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Talk about timing: with the world preparing itself for nuclear war and the mutually assured destruction of the USA and the USSR, here was a political thriller to pilot ordinary citizens through that nightmare what-if. Following a routine scare involving an unverified but ultimately harmless aircraft heading from Russian airspace towards America, a mechanical failure in the comms system results in a U.S. bomber squadron receiving unintended orders to flatten Moscow. Small error, grave consequence: because the safety measures in place are successful to a fault, the accident cannot be fixed. Not even the President can overturn the command—though, in the interests of dramatic tension, that doesn’t stop him from trying. 

In Lumet’s film, Fonda’s head of state spends most of his time in a minimally furnished emergency basement beneath the White House, hot-lining advisors in the Pentagon, top military brass at the Omaha, Nebraska headquarters of Strategic Air Command (SAC), and Jack Grady (Ed Binns), the colonel tasked with leading six bomber planes from their Alaskan airbase to the very heart of Communist Russia. With the aid of his interpreter Buck (Larry Hagman), the President must also communicate with his opposite number in the Kremlin, in an increasingly desperate attempt to convince him that the escalating scenario is a giant mistake. Fonda plays the commander-in-chief as virtuous and reasonable, a man for whom the clock is always ticking and every hour is the eleventh. He delivers information in the same way he wants it: uncooked, unvarnished, blunt. 

If Burdick and Wheeler, in their “detailed descriptions of weapons and communications systems, organizations, and their broad depictions of large-scale, high-technology military crises,” anticipated the geopolitical techno-thrillers of Tom Clancy (and beyond), then in Fonda’s President we find a prototype of Jack Ryan, Clancy’s recurrent hero who is described, in his 1994 novel Debt of Honor, as “a good man in a storm.” Fail-Safe, in fact, is full of good men in a storm—or it at least has the decency to spare us of an all-out villain. Ari N. Schulman, writing on the 50th anniversary of its release, noted that the film’s revelation is “that the people in charge could actually be good and well-intentioned—and they’d carry out the destruction just the same.” 

Whereas Dr. Strangelove sends up imperialist logic as a portrait of individual paranoia, personal stupidity and bumbling ineptitude, Fail-Safe targets the failures of an actual system. Schulman, again: “Fail-Safe is often misread as Frankenstein or Jurassic Park: the familiar whine about science’s unintended consequences and technology gone mad. But the crisis’s real cause is the logic of the nuclear system at every level—its institutions, structures, procedures, and rationales. This isn’t a movie about why we should fear machines or the people who control them. It’s about how managerial systems can bring about just the things they’re designed to avert.” 

Even Walter Matthau’s Professor Groteschele, a civilian acting as a military advisor to the Department of Defense, is driven by the detached rationale of a them-or-us mindset that’s informed, for better and worse, by his belief that a nuclear standoff is winnable. Groteschele is perhaps the only character in Lumet’s film who might not look misplaced in Kubrick’s. In fact, like Dr. Strangelove himself, Matthau’s character is modeled on the real-life theoretician and war strategist Herman Kahn, who was known for his intricate prognoses of a nuclear conflict. Matthau plays Groteschele as a figure whose apparent ambivalence is, in its own way, deeply sensible; he is the film’s most fascinating character. Early on, he slaps a woman for misinterpreting his stance on death as a sport (not to mention an erotic turn on), telling her with over-enunciated scorn: “I’m not your kind of guy.”  

Adapted for the screen by the previously blacklisted communist Walter Bernstein, Fail-Safe is a real-time disaster picture in which time itself is the disaster. The nuclear holocaust remains an ever-enlargening point on the approaching horizon, like a suicidal leap played in slow motion—allowing the black-and-white inescapability of things to register in full. It’s the zero hour as frozen present tense. As time runs out, the President’s solutions grow more outrageous, and we’re asked to ponder irreconcilably absurd scenarios that are logical and improbable in the same moment: U.S. planes downing their own Moscow-bound bomber; SAC and the Pentagon cooperating with their Russian counterparts; nuking New York as a gesture of sacrificial goodwill.

Unfolding in shadowy interiors and clammy close-ups, Lumet’s mise en scène consists of bunkers and boardrooms, of cockpits and conferences, as men in suits exchange words in taut shot/reverse-shot sequences (when disagreeing) or simple, sustained two-shots (when working together). Like his geographically dispersed characters, Lumet can’t afford to meander from the job, and his unfussy, unsentimental and workmanlike approach suits the material at hand. Though Dr. Strangelove (comparisons persist, however unfairly) was the work of surgical, precise, brilliant filmmaking, Kubrick knew it too well—and couldn’t help but broadcast his genius with every composition and cut. With Lumet you get a more levelheaded, unpretentious buildup, which makes the flourishes all the more hard-hitting—such as a climax that suddenly breaks the studio-bound claustrophobia to show the startling authenticity of New York streets, and freeze-framed civilians quite oblivious to the pending doom.

Other flourishes come by way of reaction shots, edited in quick flurries between the film’s four frontlines. Eschewing music, Lumet allows these brief, rapid, purely cinematic sequences to play out in a silence that screams much louder than any thunderous exclamation. Indeed, the film seems to get quieter as it goes—and the camera gets closer to the protagonists’ faces, emphasizing the very human fallout of a computing malfunction. Where an early scene sees one character angrily hushing an inappropriately boisterous command center (“This isn’t some damn football game, remember that!”), later scenes show characters more resigned, worn down by this world-ending calamity. Grady’s copilot, still under the presumption that their mission was initiated by commie missiles destroying his country: “What the hell, there’s nothing to go home to anyway.” And that brief, futile appearance from Grady’s wife, as she appeals to a duty-bound husband who’s about to obliterate a city of six million people.

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