What begins as a routine tour for a visiting Congressman of Strategic Air Commands headquarters in Omaha, turns into the ultimate nightmare. An unidentified aircraft is spotted on a course toward Detroit. Airborne bombers are scrambled to fixed points around Soviet Russia until the aircraft can be identified. The identification process takes a bit longer than usual, but nothing seems unusual.
An all clear is sent to all flight groups, but a mechanical failure, coupled with a jamming transmission, causes an invalid attack code to be transferred to one of the bomber groups. Unable to communicate with base and their attack codes confirmed, the bombers head toward their target, Moscow. The President (Peter Fonda) must summon translator Peter Buck (Larry Hagman) to the underground command shelter which houses the direct “hotline” to Soviet Russia’s Premier. So begins tense negotiations between the two, as the President tries to assure his Soviet counterpart that this is not the beginning of a full-scale attack and that everything that can be done to stop the bombers is underway.
Aside from the opening scenes and a montage at the climax, the entire film takes place inside just three rooms. Underground at the White House, the President is in constant contact with the nuclear command center and the Pentagon. It’s from these locations the future of mankind hangs in the balance. Some in the Pentagon, led by Professor Groeteschele (a serious Walter Matthau), see the situation as reason to launch a first strike war, while others favor cooperation.
The attempt to stop the bomber group drives the drama and allows everyone in the cast time to shine. Frank Overton is Brogan, the SAC commanding general, who faith in his systems is completely shaken by the accident, Colonel Cascio (Fritz Weaver) is his XO, ashamed of his upbringing (demonstrated when he get into a fight with his alcoholic father prior to being summoned to SAC headquarters) and more likely to crack under the strain, Dan O’ Herlihy is Brigadier General Warren A. “Blackie” Black, harboring serious doubt about the intelligence of the U.S. arsenal–“We’ve got to stop war, not limit it,” he says, against the better judgement of his colleagues.
Without a doubt, the star of the film is Henry Fonda as the beleaguered President of the United States. Personable but commanding, he’s the voice of reason and responsibility. Important too, is Larry Hagman’s Peter Buck. The Russian interpreter, Buck’s whispered comments and explanations of them are pivotal. After all the talk and debate, the President his face thick with tension and his Russian counterpart, hold the fate of the world in their hands.
Fail-Safe arrived in theaters just months after Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. Because of the similar plots, Fail-Safe suffered at the box office; there where even whispers of plagiarism, despite the fact the movie was based on a novel of the same name and directed by the great Sidney Lumet. In the more than fifty years since its release, Fail-Safe has become a well-regarded depiction of a nuclear crisis.
Criterion’s Blu-ray of Fail-Safe utilizes a new 4K scan “primarily from the original 35mm camera negative.” The results are impressive. Presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the black and white image looks stunning and I can’t imagine detail being any clearer. Contrast is beautiful and there’s a nice level of textured grain. Criterion has delivered another top-notch transfer.
The English LPCM 1.0 audio is stable and clean throughout. It offers depth for plane effects and warning sirens. There is fittingly, no score. Dialogue is clean, clear and concise.
English SDH subtitles are included.
The following extras are available:
- Audio Commentary with Director Sidney Lumet: Recorded in 2000, Lumet discusses how the film came to be, its political message, shooting locations, the cast and more. Lumet clearly saw this film as important and shares lots of details.
- Hoberman (HD, 19:30) Recorded exclusively for Criterion in 2019, critic J. Hoberman discusses the 1962 novel by Eugene Burdick that inspired Fail-Safe. He also shares some thoughts about the socio-economic climate of the 1960’s.
- Fail-Safe Revisited (HD, 16:01) A short EPK from 2000, including interviews with Sydney Lumet, screenwriter Walter Bernstein and actor Dan O’Herlihy.
- Leaflet: An illustrated leaflet featuring an essay by critic Bilge Ebiri.
Movie title: Fail-Safe
Duration: 112 min
Director(s): Sidney Lumet
Actor(s): Dan O'Herlihy, Walter Matthau , Frank Overton , Edward Binns, Fritz Weaver, Henry Fonda
Genre: War, Thriller, Drama