The TV remake of Fail Safe in 2000 used the gimmick of live TV to sell the show. That’s a shame, because the story does not need an extra push; it stands on its own as a powerful piece of Cold War fears and nuclear war.
With the time span, under 80 minutes when you take the credits into account, Fail Safe loses something. The story, that of six US bombers accidentally sent to bomb Moscow with nuclear warheads, needs time to develop. This remake moves at a blistering pace.
In particular, the character of Professor Groeteschele originally played by Walter Matthau, has little time to develop. Hank Azaria plays the role perfectly, but the introduction is abrupt. The original film introduced him at a dinner party, while here he is already working in Washington discussing the after effects of war and statistics.
This remake also works like Gus Van Sant’s 1998 version of Psycho. Very little has changed. Much of the dialogue remains the same, black and white is the chosen form, and a glaring use of stock footage shows some mild action. Sets look as if they were preserved and reused from the 1964 Fail Safe. There is nothing wrong in striving for accuracy, but the changes are so minimal, you have to wonder why they bothered remaking the film at all.
That said, despite the live format, Fail Safe still works. While it may not carry the breathtaking level of suspense and tension of Sidney Lumet's ’64 Fail Safe, all of the emotion carries over. The brilliance of the film is in not showing the Russians on film, but using their voices over telephones.
It makes the impact of the final outcome stronger. The audience would not have the same response if they were involved in the opposite side of this story.
Certainly in the 1960s, audiences would likely cheer at the thought of killing faceless Russians with nuclear weapons. When the tide potentially turns by the end of the film, it is not cut and dry. You could feel guilt or even consider yourself hypocritical now that the U.S. is in danger. Without divulging spoilers, the final frames give the movie its lasting impact, and certainly images you won’t forget.
Fail Safe was an early hi-definition broadcast. The DVD benefits from the source. While some aliasing is a problem due to the resolution downgrade, this is a detailed transfer. Close-ups reveal pores on the actor’s faces, and stitching on clothing. Contrast is excellent, and the black levels create a decent level of depth. Artifacting is rarely a problem. There are no instances of noise or other digital video defect.
The live broadcast suffers from the source. Some ambient noise from the set that would never make it into a finished film is evident. It drowns out dialogue at times, however briefly. It’s not a fault of the audio encoding on the disc, but an issue worth mentioning. The Dolby 2.0 mix features no positional audio to speak of. It is straightforward and serviceable.
Fail Safe was broadcast on CBS April 9th, 2000. It was the first feature length broadcast on the network in nearly 40 years.