The one thing that looms large in our collective consciousness is the prospect of Armageddon. Some twisted nerve in our psyches has a need to dwell on the unthinkable, and it’s probably because we just have to know how it all ends. Fail Safe takes that premise to one terrifyingly possible conclusion.
The premise, originally presented in the 1962 novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, hinges not on troop movements but on the fallibility of our engineering arrogance. Sidney Lumet’s 1964 Playhouse 90 adaptation of Fail Safe remains a classic drama of cold war tensions. Like Dr. Strangelove (also released in 1964), Fail Safe postulated mutually assured destruction as the result not of war, but of diplomatic wranglings and mechanical failures. A computer malfunction prompts a U.S. bomber squadron to think they have orders to attack Moscow with nuclear weapons. Because of precautionary procedures, the order is irreversible. The crew’s training preempts them from accepting radio transmissions, as they would most likely be Russian decoys. As the planes race resolutely to accomplish their mission, it’s left to diplomacy to ward off global catastrophe.
The 2000 version of Fail Safe is no less powerful than its earlier incarnations. Executive produced by George Clooney, it aired live and in black and white on CBS 9 April 2000. Even with Walter Cronkite noting in his introduction that it was the first attempt by CBS in 39 years to telecast a drama live, this is hardly an exercise in nostalgia. Granted, the Soviet Union no longer exists, and we like to believe that we’ve put the possibility of mutually assured destruction behind us. As this teleplay eloquently illustrates, however, the spectre of global holocaust still looms before us, regardless of how the players and the tactics have changed.
Played as a live performance, Fail Safe has a sense of immediacy that a theatrical film would be hard pressed to replicate. Working within the parameters of what is essentially a stage play, the mostly male cast deliver performances that inexorably draw the viewer into the tensions the characters face. Richard Dreyfuss as the President and Harvey Keitel as the battle hardened but war weary General Black are particularly noteworthy in their pivotal roles. Sam Elliot and Brian Dennehy are also impressive as the gung ho congressman and the cocky desktop general who see their sense of wonder unravel as the East and West careen deeper into the nuclear nightmare. George Clooney, as the supremely dedicated pilot Col. Grady, in whose hands the fate of the civilized world rests, turns in a brilliantly understated performance.
Fail Safe is much more than a daring experiment in live television, though. The fact that the actors were working without a net, as it were, heightens the tension of the telecast in that the format didn’t allow for second takes. Stephen Frears, better known as a film director whose credits include The Grifters and The Queen, proves his prowess in the live medium here, despite a couple of insignificant glitches. But the real power of Fail Safe is in its ability to convey the very real threat of humankind’s inability to harness the forces it unleashes. In that regard, it’s as timeless as the story of Prometheus. It warns us that in our hands, the world will end not in a roar, but in a sadly whining whimper.