Fail-Safe (1964)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Fail-Safe</strong> (1964)

(On Cable TV, September 2018) If ever the news have you down, if ever you start despairing for humanity, if even the nights are dark and the days even darker, then have a look at Fail-Safe and be comforted by the fact that we all made it out of the Cold War and its overhanging threat of a nuclear holocaust. A nightmare put on film by director John Frankenheimer, Fail-Safe is one of 1964’s three delayed reactions to the Cuba crisis executed as thrillers. Unlike Seven Days in May, it’s very much centred on the possibility of nuclear exchange between the USA and the USSR. Unlike Dr. Strangelove, it’s not a comedy. Really not a comedy. From the first few unsettling images to the last heartbreaking freeze-frames, Fail-Safe is unrelenting in its fatalistic grimness. It follows an implacable logic in which the worst traits of men, machines and systems all lead to the death of millions. Hope is dangled then taken away and even the usually jovial Walter Matthau here plays completely against type as an implacable academician coolly assessing the logic of mutually assured destruction. Peter Fonda is also quite good as The President facing down a catastrophic scenario in which an out-of-control American bomber mistakenly believe it must bomb Moscow. Asphyxiating and merciless, Fail-Safe is shot is stark black-and-white with very few musical cues, its naturalistic approach making everything feel even worse. Such a situation may not be particularly credible today, but it’s sobering to watch the film and realize that it reflected a real possibility back in 1964. We may have our own issues today, but I’ll take them over the threat of all-consuming nuclear war.

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