There are few scarier concepts than the possibility of nuclear annihilation. When the United States unleashed the first, and only, atomic bombs on Japan at the close of World War II, it startled friend and foe alike. Before television, millions of Americans and others around the world consumed their news visually by going to the cinema. Before films began, there typically appeared newsreels depicting in motion pictures the events of the day. Footage of the flattened cityscapes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki fascinated and frightened audiences, and it was not long until it became fodder for Hollywood. In the decades following 1945, there existed a state of Cold War between the two nations in the world with large enough nuclear weapons to wipe out not only each other, but take a significant portion of the world with them. Geo-political philosophy adopted such incredulous sounding stances as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). If that phrase is not clear enough, what it meant was that if one side launched a nuclear attack, the other would respond in kind. Each believed themselves superior, ideologically, technologically, culturally, and economically speaking. These superiority complexes made for alarmingly itchy button pushing fingers, and when you look at the rhetoric that made up the true ammunition of the Cold War, it is a wonder that we made it through the years between 1945 and 1990 when the Soviet Union collapsed. This is all provided as context for you to better understand the things going on in Fail Safe (1964).
General Black (Dan O’Herlihy) is having nightmares as Fail Safe starts. He awakens at 5:30 am after a frenetic dreamscape where a bull is killed by a matador, and he believes it to be a portent of things to come. In another part of the country, Washington, D.C., to be precise, a party is breaking up where Dr. Groeteschele (Walter Mathau) praises the ability of the United States to be able to completely destroy its enemy, the Soviet Union. He follows this up by stating he would rather have an American culture survive than a Russian one. Moving farther west, General Bogan (Frank Overton) of the United States Air Force explains to a group of Congressmen how the American nuclear arsenal operates, underscoring the precise machinery that keeps their weapons at bay, but always ending with the final decision to launch is always controlled by a human. One of the aspects of this system is a constant patrol of bombers armed with nuclear warheads that stay aloft in shifts, ready to fly into the Soviet Union and lay waste to a target city. One of these planes is based out of Anchorage, Alaska, and is piloted by Colonel Grady (Edward Binns). As the tour in Omaha wraps up, a slight glitch in the system is reported. This glitch triggers a set of instructions to be relayed to Colonel Grady’s bomber wing, ordering his unit to head for Moscow to destroy it. All the above have the prearranged understanding that if this message is ever sent, it is because a state of nuclear war exists between the United States and the Soviet Union. MAD, in other words. Unfortunately, it is simply the result of computer error. Still, Colonel Grady is under strict orders that, in the event that he is sent to drop his payload, to ignore any communication with him or his wingmates as an attempt by the enemy to confused them and steer them off course. With the flight of bombers headed off to carry out the unthinkable, the president (Henry Fonda) is alerted, who immediately gets on the phone with the Soviet premier. They use a specialized phone set up between the two countries in such an event, and he frantically explains, through his interpreter Buck (Larry Hagman) that this is all a terrible mistake. Meanwhile in the Pentagon, General Black and Dr. Groeteschele exchange heated words over the philosophy of what is about to happen. Unsurprisingly, Dr. Groeteschele favors doing nothing, letting the bombers proceed, believing that the Soviets will easily capitulate. General Black argues the opposite, and stands as a voice for limited war, suggesting that the machinery they have built to provide so-called safeguards for this eventuality is the real problem. The president sides with General Black, and even goes so far to pass along information to help the Soviets to shoot down the bombers as they enter Russian air space. At the same time, they make contingency plans for if and when one of the bombers gets past the Soviet defenses. The one that does is flown by Colonel Grady, and he continues with his mission even when they are able to get through to him via radio and have his wife (Janet Ward) try to convince him that there is no war. When even this fails, the president comes up with an unconscionable compromise to avoid a nuclear holocaust: he offers to launch a nuclear attack on New York City. And this is how it ends, with the two major cities being destroyed.
Is that description of Fail Safe’s ending not grim enough? There is also the fact that the president orders New York’s destruction despite his wife being there at the time of the bombing. We also get to hear the electronic screech (more like a high-pitched scream) of the American ambassador to the Soviet Union as he is on the phone with the president when the blast hits him. The whole time you watch the film, they set these moments up as things that could happen. With what I spoke about in the opening paragraph about what people knew then about the capabilities of nuclear weapons, the whole time you watch the film you are thinking that there is no way that any of this insanity is actually going to occur. It is almost too horrible to think about, and the film has a poignant montage of everyday life in New York City just before it is destroyed. Incidentally, you see a Catholic priest in these snippets, which is a tried and true method of Hollywood’s for signaling Christianity broadly without needing to say anything. Anyway, yeah, the film is a real downer, and it provides all this tension by switching between basically four static sets: the president’s bunker, the Pentagon, the Omaha command center, and Colonel Grady’s cockpit. It is a remarkable movie in this regard.
It is worth mentioning that the plane at the end of Fail Safe that drops the bomb on New York City is flown by General Black. Up to that point, he spent most of his screen time verbally sparring with Dr. Groeteschele about the feasibility of limited war in the nuclear age. The only reason he is behind the controls of a bomber is because he is the president’s friend and understand his chief’s desire to avoid a larger conflict. It is an awful duty to inflict on a friend, and I would not call it a Christian one either. Any war alone is not something God desires because all life is precious. That is the problem with nuclear weapons in general. The death and destruction they wreak is indiscriminate. Those living at the time and advocating such actions, symbolized by Dr. Groeteschele, feel that there are no innocents in innocents in such an ideological struggle, unless you are talking about his side, of course. But in such a total conflict, everyone loses, innocent and guilty alike. I pray that we never have to face such an awful eventuality.
Though dated, Fail Safe is a movie that will get you thinking. I can also understand if that kind of movie is not your ideal, and the lack of action-packed sequences will leave some bored. Hence, it is not a movie for all audiences, but an interesting one nonetheless.