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Fail-Safe 1964

American planes are sent to deliver a nuclear attack on Moscow, but it's a mistake due to an electrical malfunction. Can all-out war be averted...

Your rating: 0

Solar rating: 9.7


Imdb rating: 8



Released 50 years ago this week. Just as chilling today as it was then.
Classic movie directed by Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Prince of the City and others). Blockbuster casting and not melodramatic as so many movies were at that time.
And no, there is no computer playing tic-tac-toe.
While watching Fail-Safe, the title for my review that came to mind was "Good thriller, politics aside." I did not agree with the strong anti-war sentiment of the movie, and I could pass over the gross inaccuracies (Lack of presidential advisors, maps, structure of defense department, etc), the story was good and the pacing introduced suspense. I was satisfied, I was planning on giving the movie a good (7/10) review; the politics were minor, and there were characters (though the movie horrified them) that I could side with.

That was all until the President (Henry Fonda) announced his decision to take care of the situation; from that point on, the movie moved from the realm of near-reality to the realm of true fantasy.

If you have not seen the movie, and want to have your pacifistic beliefs reaffirmed, watch Fail-Safe. If you are at all rational, watch something else. Anything.


I believe I am a rather fair person; I will state that I am not anti-war, but I am not pro-war either. I do not believe that we should ask for war, but it is necessary at times. During those special times, we must commit ourselves fully to the job of killing the enemy and saving our own. That is what we must do during war; I do not glorify it but merely accept it as a certainty. However, I also fully understand both the anti and pro-war scenes, and I feel they both have valid points. I do not believe that true warmongers (pro-war to the nth degree) or pacifists (anti-war to the nth degree) have valid points, as their beliefs are based in a binary world where either everyone loves everyone, or everyone hates everyone.

Ignoring the rest of the movie, let us just look at the final decision that the President makes: After all attempts to call back the accidental (?) go-ahead signal, and after it is clear that Moscow will be destroyed, it is decided that American bombers will drop two nuclear bombs on the Americans in New York.

However that decision opens many questions about the President's thinking, and the message of the movie. Let me discuss a couple. First, the movie is attacking both our society's dependence on machines, and our society's acceptance of war. So, by having the bombers accidentally proceed to destroy Moscow, we can see the possibility of trouble by depending on machines (I will not argue against that here). However, by having the President sacrifice five million Americans, what is the message we are to take away? That we should be anti-war because in war we will choose to sacrifice our own in exchange for the losses we inflict? Then it would seem that Germany should have killed as many of their own citizens as the number of Allied Forces + Jews slain in WWII. However, that did not happen; I doubt it was ever even honestly suggested. Or does the movie want us to be anti-war because Americans will cop-out in war and we will just make a fool of ourselves? American is hardly bad at war; we have one of the strongest records in the world (not saying that is good or bad). Or is the movie just saying that the President makes stupid decisions? If that was true, then the movie is actually arguing for another form of government (anyone up for some Socialism?).

As the movie does not achieve anything positive, that being to aid its anti-war message, by destroying New York, there seems to be only one reason to kill five million Americans -- the writers could not find any logical way to get the audience on board with its anti-war message, so they take decide to make the most base of attacks and sentimentally murder millions of Americans. Few Americans of the time would be too upset that our mortal enemy was crushed (accident or not), so we need to bring the damage home. If the writers had chosen to have the Russians destroy New York, then the audience would unite against Russia, therefore not achieving an anti-war message. So, the unimaginative writers took what was left, and had the President sacrifice his own. It would seem that the writers could find no logical way to be anti-war; how many anti-war Americans are such because they are worried that the President will decide to send a nuke to New York? Only the crazy ones.

However, let us also look at the consequences of bombing New York, assuming for a moment that the President took that course of action. The entire financial district would be destroyed; the Federal Reserve in New York would disappear, as well as the stock markets, and major banks. With the destruction of major banks, financial records would be destroyed. Without the Fed in NY, checks would be valueless in the entire NY Fed district. More than likely, this loss would pull down the entire system and the Federal Reserve would crumble. Money stored in banks would disappear, although the FDIC would eventually kick in to preserve funds if records of funds persevered. With the loss of American banks, American's would loose access to a majority of their savings. And with the destruction of major corporations as well, and the cleanup costs of this genius plan, the economy would fall into depression. People would start killing friends over food; necessary services (power, water, etc) would fail across the nation. If the Russians had attacked the US, then Americans would work to restore services to 'show up' the Russians (think: 9/11). However, now the devil that had caused this would be our own government, and the disillusionment would destroy American's want to persevere. In Washington, government officials would be talking impeachment. Outside DC, other political groups would be vying to takeover. Some would call for a dictatorship to take over, others would call for socialism. Alternative forms of government would work to restore necessary services to gain popularity; Americans would cease to be democratic. The very freedom that our forefathers died for would be void and America would be placed under the firm hold of another form of government. America would cease to be the Land of the Free.

In the realm that we call reality, no President would order the destruction of his own city. If an accident like Fail-Safe portrays happened, America would probably either pay reparations, or attack with full force. If the President did give the order to destroy New York, few would listen; the idea is illogical and counterproductive. Suddenly, the Vice-President would be promoted.

While the situation may have been inevitable, there is no reason to have two loosers emerge from the accident.

Fail-Safe attempts to be one of the most anti-war movies made not through reason or logic, but by base (and stupid) emotional attacks. More than anything, this would seem to hurt Fail-Safe's point, for it would seem to indicate that there was no logical way to be anti-war at this point.

However, we all remember that events depicted in Fail-Safe are fiction and any relationship to actual events is purely accidental. And, quite clearly, only in the realm of fiction could these events happen.

Fail-Safe: 3/10
MOOD: Eyes getting heavy
LISTENING TO: Oasis - "Wonderwall"

Mini-Mini-Mini-or-is-it? Review:

Suspenseful and taut considering it was made in the mid 60's.Good cast including:Henry Fonda plays a reasonable, thoughtful, and intelligent PresidentWalter Matthau plays a serious role!!!! :eek:
Some interesting stuff:

Came out about the same time as Dr. Strangelove and both films have very similar storylines. Dr. Strangelove went for great satire while Fail-Safe went for suspenseful seriousness.They were based on different books but Fail-Safe's production crew was sued by Dr. Strangelove's production crew because the subject matter was so closely related.
Good story. The ending suprised me. Well, let's just say that this film wouldn't be popular during the Depression. Actually, it wasn't all that popular anyway. Dr. Strangelove stole the spotlight haha.Recommendation: Watch it if you don't mind black and white films.

Grade: B+

If you haven't yet, watch Dr. Strangelove as well and then you can compare and contrast it with Fail-Safe. Have fun! ;)

Comments pending.
Review coming
Days of Being Wild (Kar Wai 91) 8.0/10
Fail-Safe (Lumet 64) 9.5/10
Der Untergang (Hirschbiegel 04) 8.5/10
American Pyscho (Harron 00) 8.0/10
Double Indemnity (Wilder 44) 8.5/10
One of the best anti-war films of all time, and also one of both Henry Fonda and Director Sidney Lumet's best films. Amazingly tense, extremely well written and acted. The frightening scenario is very believably done. The pace is non-stop exciting. A great classic.
Directed by Sidney Lumet
Starring Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, Dan O'Herlihy

"Fail-Safe" goes in direct comparison with the other doomsday movie of that year, "Dr. Strangelove," a certified classic and one of the funniest movies of all time. "Fail-Safe" is the straight version. While "Red Alert," the book upon which Kubrick's movie was based, "Fail-Safe" was a more accomplished novel. Grim and suspenseful as both USA and Russia try to destroy a group of jet bombers from reaching their targets in Russia after a computer error made them impossible to recall. There's a handful of strong performances albeit serious, at par with "Strangelove" including Henry Fonda as the President. Plus, it showcases Lumet's directing skills.

Best Scene: The plane gets through in spite of a wife's plea.
QUOTE: "The matador. The matador. Me. Me."

Fonda gives an amazing performance as the U.S. President and and he's supported nicely by others including Walter Matthau and Ed Binns. This film seems chlostrophobic given it takes place almost entirely on only two sets, putting us right in the president's shoes on how he must feel in this type of situation. Why Fail Safe is overshadowed by Dr. Strangelove is a mystery to me; both are quality films, but Fail-Safe is just superior. This movie stayed with me for days after viewing it, shocked by its outcome. Do see this film; it is unbelievably underrated.

Fail-Safe (1964)

As far as cold war movies go this has to be one of the best. It came out the same year as Dr. Strangelove, except that I feel this is a much better movie. This is one of the most depressing movies I've ever seen. I found some of the President's (Fonda) actions to be extremely far-fetched but it was still effective for the movie.
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