Dr. Fail-Safe: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

I first saw Dr. Strangelove in school at about fifteen. I’d been trying to track it down for some time beforehand, but the one time it had been on the TV my attempts to set the VCR had resulted in my taping only the last 2 minutes. I have seen it several times since, in all formats; at home on my own, with a group of friends after several beers, once in college on the big screen. For much of this time I was aware of the existence of its cinematic counterpart Fail-Safe.

Fail-Safe was always a bit of a mystery, as I’m sure it still is too many. The Shark Tale to Strangelove’s Finding Nemo it seemed, an inferior, later model, unlikely to compliment, certain to disappoint.

But then you look at the people behind it, Sidney Lumet at the helm. There’s Henry Fonda… I always thought he’d make a great president. Walter Matthau’s there too. And look, Dan O’Herlihy… he was in RoboCop. And RoboCop is awesome, right?

Tonight I finally watched Fail-Safe, which I managed to record off the telly the other night. It never comes on too often, not like its satirical second cousin Strangelove, and is far from readily available on DVD. But there it was, and I was certain not to miss it like I missed Strangelove all those years ago.

The similarities in plot are unmistakable, but the tone is so utterly different. As a thriller this is truly intense. What’s more, because it cannot take the same black comedic view as the finale of Strangelove, and since this predates the pessimistic political thrillers of the 70s (Chinatown, The Parallax View), the ending is quite astonishing.

The choice to use grainy footage of aircraft and Space Invaders­-like animation for the “Big Board” (to use a Strangelove-ism), does not quite live up to the effects and models used in Kubrick’s film, despite how much they now appear dated themselves. However, the intense use of shadow and close-up really make this an edge of your seat film, which Strangelove never quite succeeds in becoming, although it could easily be argued it is not attempting to be.

What is spectacular here is how it is all in the hands of the US President and military. Unlike President Muffley and co. who can only try every option available to get the abort order through to the planes and abide by the consequences of the Doomsday Device should they fail, Fonda’s anonymous president is constantly looking for a solution in the worst case scenario. His solution, particularly to audiences in the post-9/11 world, is utterly ghastly, and that personal and political drama is incomparable to anything in Strangelove.

That is hardly to argue that Strangelove is a worse film; despite their similarities they exist in separate genres and with separate intents and thus cannot be fairly compared. Dr. Strangelove is undoubtedly the more influential, is certainly more ahead of its time, and its humour has rarely if ever been equalled. Yet it seems unfair that Strangelove’s undoubted successes should so utterly wipe Fail-Safe from the popular cinematic map. Few political thrillers have quite the same level of intensity as that which Fail-Safe musters in its final 20 minutes. It is a shame that it should be viewed as little more than a lesser relation of a film so godlike in its reputation.

Fail-Safe is a film that needs to be revisited, both popularly and critically. Now if only I can get my hands on the 2000 live television production…

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