Released only seven months after DR. STRANGELOVE by the very same studio, the virtually identical, albeit totally serious, FAIL SAFE was a relative failure at the box office. Kubrick had gone to Columbia's top brass and threatened a plagiarism lawsuit. (His film was based on Peter George's
almost unknown novel Red Alert.) Since Columbia was distributing both DR. STRANGELOVE and FAIL SAFE, it appeased Kubrick by releasing his film first, and, of course, that cult classic captured the lion's share of viewers, leaving FAIL SAFE to appear as a serious, comparatively dreary rehash.
In it, a squadron of SAC bombers flies off to drop nuclear bombs on Moscow after a faulty transmission of orders that cannot be reversed through normal channels. The US military tries everything to stop them, but the bombers fly beyond "fail safe" and the president (Henry Fonda) is alerted. He
goes to his bomb-proof bunker deep beneath the White House, where, in a simple, sterile room, he tries to inform Soviet leaders of the terrible blunder. Meanwhile, his cabinet and advisers meet in the War Room, keeping him informed of fast-developing events and channeling messages from the Omaha
command center. After several attempts to recall or shoot down the planes, it becomes obvious that one of the bombers will deliver its load on Moscow. In a desperate effort to prevent a retaliatory attack by the Soviets that would result in all-out nuclear war, the president must resort to a
Grim, bleak and highly claustrophobic, FAIL SAFE is very much like director Sidney Lumet's previous film, 12 ANGRY MEN, in that it concentrates almost exclusively on the actors' performances and is shot mainly in tight close-ups. While this is a wonderful showcase for some fine acting--notably by
Fonda--it is not great filmmaking, and one may be left wishing for the biting, off-the-wall satire of DR. STRANGELOVE.
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