"What do we say to the dead?"
October 7, 2014 5:57 PM   Subscribe

On the fiftieth anniversary of its theatrical release, Slate is taking a look back at the Cold War thriller Fail Safe (trailer), which stars Henry Fonda as a U.S. President who has to deal with a computational accident that risks nuclear war. The film was preceded at the box office by Dr. Strangelove, a film very similar in plot but drastically different in tone. Fail Safe bombed as a result of the comparison with Kubrick's masterpiece, but the story itself would have a second chance at reaching audiences come the year 2000.

George Clooney produced and starred in a live broadcast remake of Fail-Safe on April 9th, 2000 for the CBS television network. It was the first feature-length fictional show broadcast live on CBS in 39 years and, just to capture that Cold War starkness, it was filmed in black and white. The cast featured such old heavy-hitters as Harvey Keitel, Brian Denehey, Richard Dreyfus and Sam Elliot as well Clooney pals like Don Cheadle and Noah Wyle.

You can watch the complete telecast (including the introduction by Walter Cronkite) here.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI (54 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
 
I remember watching the original on tv after school as a small child (wtf, local broadcasters?) and being TOTALLY FREAKED OUT. Both by the content and the fact that Major Nelson from "I Dream of Jeannie" was in it.

That scene when the American ambassador is on the phone describing the attack on Moscow ("Fireworks... It's like the Fourth of July!")... chilling.

I'll have to check out the Clooney version.
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 6:09 PM on October 7, 2014 [5 favorites]


I looooooove Fail Safe. I didn't know about the CBS live broadcast version. I'll check it out.
posted by NoMich at 6:18 PM on October 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


Even if the real-life news from my TV hadn't been filled with dreadful violence, I'd still have been scarred just by seeing this and "On the Beach" when I was a kid.
posted by NorthernLite at 6:21 PM on October 7, 2014 [4 favorites]


Oh god! On The Beach. What a double feature that would make with Fail Safe. A seriously depressing one. :-/
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 6:26 PM on October 7, 2014 [6 favorites]


Wow. According to IMDB, the tagline for the original was "It will have you sitting on the brink of eternity!"

You bet, Sixties-era Movie Studio Flack!
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 6:32 PM on October 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


Oh god! On The Beach. What a double feature that would make with Fail Safe. A seriously depressing one. :-/

I'll drink a Coke to that.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 6:34 PM on October 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


While Dr. Strangelove is undoubtedly a classic, I can watch the last two minutes of Fail-Safe over and over again -- as well as the end credits -- and get chills down my spine every time. A totally underrated Lumet masterpiece.
posted by blucevalo at 6:39 PM on October 7, 2014 [8 favorites]


We read Fail-Safe, the novel, in 7th grade English, in 1983. It freaked the hell out of me. The Cold War was a weird time to be a kid. We really thought it was pretty likely we were all going up in a mushroom cloud someday.
posted by escabeche at 6:43 PM on October 7, 2014 [9 favorites]


We really thought it was pretty likely we were all going up in a mushroom cloud someday.

Hey, there's still time. Don't count your chickens etc.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 6:44 PM on October 7, 2014 [10 favorites]


Oh, and not to spoil, but in Fail Safe when the President makes a certain decision ... and we know how that decision affects him personally ...
posted by NorthernLite at 6:48 PM on October 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


Admit it - there was a sort of comfort to the idea that neither you nor your children would be around to deal with things after everything went pear shaped.
posted by wotsac at 6:58 PM on October 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


I had watched (and read) Fail-Safe some time before I saw Dr. Strangelove, so for a long time I assumed the latter was a deliberate parody of the former. I was quite surprised when I eventually learned that it wasn't.
posted by ogooglebar at 7:06 PM on October 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


I read Fail Safe the book this year for the first time. It's dated, of course, but the story really holds up remarkably well.

I've only seen the end of the original movie, so I knew what was coming. I've always been terrified by nuclear apocalypse scenarios, so I've missed a lot of the classics. I really like Nevil Shute's writing, but I've never had the nerve to see or read On the Beach.

I'm the person who sobs uncontrollably at the end of Dr. Strangelove.
posted by Archer25 at 7:06 PM on October 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


I remember watching the original on tv after school as a small child

Ha, I remember watching the live version as a kid.
posted by stinkfoot at 7:06 PM on October 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


I'm the person who sobs uncontrollably at the end of Dr. Strangelove.

I can't track down the original interview where I read this, but Kurt Vonnegut once discussed Dr. Strangelove and gave his theory on why people love it so much. He said it's not the actors or the plot or the comedy or any of those things. Instead, It's the montage of mushroom clouds scored to "We'll meet again". He said that presenting a nuclear holocaust to that soundtrack made it seem like something pleasant, something people could resign themselves to with a faint smile if it were to happen. Ever since I read that, I cannot watch the film without thinking about that theory.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 7:15 PM on October 7, 2014 [11 favorites]


I remember watching this. In one of the scenes Brian Dennehy, thinking he was already off-camera, was oddly grinning like a Cheshire cat.
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 7:19 PM on October 7, 2014


A flawed review from Slate, I think, with the same disregard for cultural context and badly formed desire to debunk as many recent literary reappraisals (like those regarding The Catcher in the Rye, Shakespeare etc.)

By the time Fail-Safe debuted, Dr. Strangelove had already ascended to the pantheon as the definitive protest film against the nuclear age. After its dark comedy, who could bother with this last gasp of the phony-voiced melodramas?

Yeah, exactly. I mean, with the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, Klan killings, etc, people were already living in fear. Producing movies that had a simple message of 'look how afraid you should be of X scenario' like Fail-Safe and Seven Days in May were not going to inspire much change.

This is too bad, because as brilliant and grotesquely funny as Dr. Strangelove is, the neglected Fail-Safe is the more mature and damning take on the nuclear enterprise.

Yes, Fail-Safe is a drama, whereas Strangelove is a comedy; if mature = no laughing Fail-Safe takes that prize. But if maturity is a measure of how intelligently the film reacts to the culture of its time, Strangelove is more mature, no question. Instead of producing a 'phony-voiced melodrama', Kubrick created a black comedy because by getting his audience to laugh, he could produce actual considered engagement with his subject matter: hang on, why am I laughing at nuclear armageddon? As Nora May writes in Running Time: Films of the Cold War,
After radioactive clouds enveloped the world at the end of Dr. Strangelove, one could leave the theater with the echo of Vera Lynn singing, "We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when," reverberating in one's ears, oddly elated by a sense of possibility; a movie that defied the traditions of taste and subverted our institutions implied that the Fifties were finally fading. The concept of change had seemed remote to many of us who had grown up with the Cold War: accepting the norm had been the rondo theme of our education, and the future was accepted to perpetuate the past. But parts of our culture were beginning to signal that passivity or stoicism need not be quintessential to the national character, and a film like Dr. Strangelove suggested that we owed reverence to no fixed authority—and that authority could even be disputed.
So don't tell me that Fail-Safe is 'much smarter about nuclear war' than Dr. Strangelove. Look at the legacy left by both films and you can see which one more intelligently engaged with its atomic age audience.
posted by Quilford at 7:23 PM on October 7, 2014 [13 favorites]


I go back and forth about which way "Dr Strangelove" and "Fail Safe" should be viewed as a double-feature. I think "Fail Safe" first, but I can see the appeal of the other.
posted by rmd1023 at 7:55 PM on October 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


How about a triple feature with Threads?
posted by orrnyereg at 7:56 PM on October 7, 2014 [6 favorites]


Fail-Safe is one of the very few novels I've read where the movie is better than the book.
(That business with the bull...)
posted by Rash at 8:11 PM on October 7, 2014


Ah, and there's the Threads comment.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:15 PM on October 7, 2014 [7 favorites]


Fail-safe, the 60's version I mean, is one of my all time... well favourite isn't the right word, it's too chilling. Most appreciated movies maybe. I saw the Clooney remake on TV back in 2000 and for ever reason it didn't feel like it had the same weight. I remember it being too play like. I've wanted to re-watch it for a while. It never occurred to me to check youtube for the full movie. It will be interesting to see it again, so thanks.
posted by adamt at 8:30 PM on October 7, 2014


You have to include When the Wind Blows in the nuclear holocaust film festival. You know, something for the kids.
posted by dr_dank at 8:35 PM on October 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


You know, something for the kids.

Don't forget Grave of the Fireflies!
posted by Quilford at 8:39 PM on October 7, 2014 [4 favorites]


Just as a side note/warning, the YouTube user who has uploaded the film also has playlists of Holocaust denial and anti-Israel 9/11 Truther videos (amongst others) so careful where you click.
posted by John Shaft at 8:45 PM on October 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


Despite how bleak it is, Grave of the Fireflies doesn't have any nukes. Those were incendiary bombs.
posted by Small Dollar at 9:09 PM on October 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


You have to include When the Wind Blows in the nuclear holocaust film festival. You know, something for the kids.

Dear god. I saw that movie when I was living in (then West) Germany in the late 80s, during the time when much of Europe truly hated the Reagan (and by extension the US) for wanting to post intercept missiles all along the western side of the Iron Curtain (on non-US territory), thus making all of those locations and countries probable targets for any USSR first strike.

The film is heartbreaking enough, but combine it with the politics, and those were heady, heady years.
posted by hippybear at 9:13 PM on October 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


"It’s about how managerial systems can bring about just the things they’re designed to avert."

No, no no. Their primary purpose was to execute nuclear war. Preventing it was, while important, a secondary concern. A better theme of the movie is "weapons misfire; big weapons misfire big."
posted by yath at 9:19 PM on October 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


The nuclear movie event of my childhood was The Day After. I was a kid at the time and remember the hype about how scarring and terrifying it would be to children.

The thing is, in the 80's, kids were already being taught to fear the (inevitable?) nuclear holocaust. So I watched the movie, and it was perhaps the first instance of over-hyping I remember. In retrospect it was because we all were already living in fear of a nuclear war - a fictional version on TV wasn't nearly as terrifying as the prospect of the real thing. Even at age 10 (or whatever) kids knew that the nuclear war drills we had at school (everyone under your desks!) were theater - we'd all be dead, and hiding under a desk wouldn't help a smidge. ("and kiss your ass goodbye" us kids told ourselves in regards to such drills).
posted by el io at 9:30 PM on October 7, 2014 [5 favorites]


The Day After was a major fuckover for anyone who was under 20 when it was on TV, partially so for anyone older than that.

Nuclear war, especially the Cold War stand-off, mutually-assured-destruction version, was something that was going to end all of humanity. Now, it's like, nukes might go off here or there, causing destruction with some retaliation, but without a major superpower behind the launch, the response will not be total missile launch at targets determined 40 years ago, and so things will be horrible and balances of power will shift in various ways not entirely predictable.

TBH, the Cold War was easier. All this stuff going on today is way more difficult.
posted by hippybear at 9:48 PM on October 7, 2014 [7 favorites]


Dr. Strangelove feels like actual useful social commentary, a lot of other apocalypse dramas just seem like respectable versions of zombie movies.

I remember seeing Testament when I was about 8 years old, Jesus that was too heavy. I saw it again a few years back, I still can't tell if it's a good movie or not, I just remembered how viscerally horrifying it was. It was very similar in tone to On the Beach, another work that I feel like was just an exercise in dreadfulness rather than insight.
posted by skewed at 9:51 PM on October 7, 2014 [3 favorites]


for a long time I assumed the latter was a deliberate parody of the former.

The thing was, the source material for Strangelove was Red Alert, whose author actually sued the Fail-Safe author for plagiarism -- and Kubrick sued the studio producing the movie of the latter on the same basis. There was closer kinship than you think, in other words.

On the other hand, we've forgotten 90% of it today, but there was a veritable zeitgeist here of sci-fi short stories, Twilight Zone episodes, mordant editorial cartoons, and so on, all on this same weighty topic. Kubrick wasn't parodying Fail-Safe directly so much as square-jawed promotional films touting our nuclear strength or chippy civil defense films, material that was familiar and ubiquitous in that era. It's really no coincidence that these films arrived at the same time -- we were graduating into the era of the long-range bomber and the ICBM, Nike installations were in all major American cities, and the prospect of a first strike nuclear war hit home.
posted by dhartung at 10:38 PM on October 7, 2014 [3 favorites]


Never forget that we are still in Mutually Assured Destruction standoffs.

Consider the new Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles. They're indistinguishable from IRBMs - that's what they are, other than the payload. If China was to launch a few dozen at American carriers, there's a real fear that the Americans might assume the Chinese had gone nuclear and respond in kind. It's possible in principle that most of the Chinese deterrent could be destroyed before it was launched - I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed...

Our continued existence still depends on great-power leaders seeing the irrationality of scenarios like that when pulled out of bed at 3am local.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 10:44 PM on October 7, 2014


So don't tell me that Fail-Safe is 'much smarter about nuclear war' than Dr. Strangelove. Look at the legacy left by both films and you can see which one more intelligently engaged with its atomic age audience.

I'm not agreeing or disagreeing with which film you think is better, but a movie's legacy upon release or even 50 years later is a poor metric of its intelligence or quality. Plenty of films are rightfully re-evaluated or simply rediscovered at a later date: Peeping Tom, The Battle of Algiers, Night of the Hunter, etc. Even Kubrick's own Eyes Wide Shut has received more praise in recent years than upon release.
posted by JauntyFedora at 11:04 PM on October 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


Standoffs in a strategic sense, yes, but with tactical hair-triggers greatly reduced and an enormous decline in deployed warheads: over 80% have been dismantled. The US and Russian navies no longer have boomer (nuclear missile) submarines on 24/7 watch near each others' coasts, which during the height of the Cold War could have reduced the decision-making time to as little as 30 seconds. We have stood down most of our long-range bombers. The US long ago retired its SR-71 Blackbird surveillance aircraft and the dreaded Looking Glass airborne command post planes. And so on, and so on. The USSR is no more, the Warsaw Pact is no more, we do not maintain a trigger line of tank divisions through the middle of Germany. Russia and China are among our largest trading partners.

If China was to launch a few dozen at American carriers,

And they would do this because .... See, you can't have a scenario without the trigger. What is the trigger? Otherwise it's just a BOTE hypothetical.

Sure, Crimea, etc., show that Russia is capable of backing away from the status quo and returning to a more aggressive stance, but we still haven't had a direct confrontation that resembles anything from the Cold War. The last major incident we had with a superpower was the EP-3 incident with China.

I'm a bit worried about North Korea, and frankly the possibility of a rogue weapon remains, but at the strategic level we are really talking about, well, history, and one we hope isn't going to be repeated anytime soon.
posted by dhartung at 11:07 PM on October 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


dhartung: The last major incident we had with a superpower was the EP-3 incident with China.
I don't really disagree, but I do want to note that Russia sent a few Tu-95 bombers into our Air Defense Identification Zone over the summer. Something they hadn't done in many years.
posted by ob1quixote at 11:26 PM on October 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


The reason that Russia hasn't sent over Bear(Tu-95)'s in years is that they are old as shit. How are those propellers treating you in 2014? At least we slapped jets on the '52s. Not to mention the B1 or B2.

I love how it's emphasized that those planes are nuclear capable. They're slightly more nuclear capable than the Enola Gay. Shit, pull the Gay out of the Smithsonian and I'll find someone to help me fly it on "an incursion" over Russia.

The US can cover all but a tiny patch of the globe with B2's. This is yet another posturing media farce. "Oh no, nobody is watching 24 hour news, better make some shit up."
posted by Sphinx at 2:44 AM on October 8, 2014


The thing was, the source material for Strangelove was Red Alert

If memory serves me correctly (or perhaps the story is just apocryphal), Kubrick originally intended to produce a straight retelling of the book, but was overtaken by the absurdity of the mechanisms surrounding nuclear warfare.

(I also recall a story in which Kubrick urged George C. Scott to more and more over-the-top performances with assurances they wouldn't be used in the final cut, and then of course used them, prompting Scott to refuse to work with Kubrick again.)

Gentlemen, you can't fight in here. This is the War Room!
posted by Gelatin at 4:56 AM on October 8, 2014


Despite how bleak it is, Grave of the Fireflies doesn't have any nukes. Those were incendiary bombs.

You want nukes, you need Barefoot Gen.
posted by sukeban at 5:19 AM on October 8, 2014 [1 favorite]


The recent book "Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety" by Eric Schlosser talks some about this cluster of films.

His piece in the January 17, 2014, New Yorker includes some of that material: "Almost Everything in 'Dr. Strangelove' Was True " He ties a summary of the book's information back to the movies several times. If you haven't read the book, this article would be a relevant read.
posted by wenestvedt at 5:50 AM on October 8, 2014 [1 favorite]


Hey, don't forget the UK, France, Pakistan and India! And Israel!

Plenty of opportunity for nuclear fun yet.
posted by Devonian at 6:31 AM on October 8, 2014


I don't really disagree, but I do want to note that Russia sent a few Tu-95 bombers into our Air Defense Identification Zone over the summer. Something they hadn't done in many years.

Just to second (sort of) Sphinx' reply to this, they've basically never stopped doing this over this side of the pond in the UK. Presumably just because we're nearer so its easier/less taxing on the aircraft assets. So much so that how to deal with it was even covered during the Scottish Independence debate.

Outside of that it rarely even makes the news anymore when it happens, unless it's a particularly slow news day or one of the papers is pushing a particularly strong "OMG THE RUSKIES ARE COMING" narrative at the time.
posted by garius at 6:46 AM on October 8, 2014


It's possible in principle that most of the Chinese deterrent could be destroyed before it was launched

China has a minimal deterrent (against the US or Russia), not a MAD deterrent. According to the FAS, between SSBNs and ICBMs they have ~40 warheads capable of striking at least parts of the US and ~60 that could strike western Russia. They have two SSBNs, so presumably either one or zero are on patrol at any given time.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:05 AM on October 8, 2014


1961-62 were terrifying years. In October of '61 JFK was advising people to build or buy bomb shelters to survive a "nuclear exchange." I remember people at intersections passing out pamphlets advertising bomb shelters. Then the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. And the duck and cover drills. By October '63, JFK had signed a limited nuclear test ban, and things had started to cool down a bit.

But it could still happen. Today, perhaps...
posted by kozad at 7:53 AM on October 8, 2014


I'm about halfway through Command and Control now, and recommend it as a child of the Cold War. Very well told. Terrifying, too.
posted by doctornemo at 7:55 AM on October 8, 2014


Ah, and there's the Threads comment.

I suppose there always has to be a Threads comment because those of us who watched it an impressionable age haven't stopped thinking about it since. I grew up at the tail end of the Cold War in a northern city, so watching Sheffield get nuked managed to crystallize a lot of my fears into a handy VHS-shaped package.

Beyond that though (and this is where it ties in with Strangelove and Fail Safe) it taught me as a child that the greatest horror that could possibly be unleashed on me and my family wasn't some sort of supernatural monster or aliens or any other staple of video nasties: it was something entirely man-made. Something that seemingly sane, rational people had sat around tables and meticulously planned. That's something that has coloured my view of humanity ever since.

(Bonus: here's a great blog post of photos of nuclear slide-rules!)
posted by sobarel at 8:17 AM on October 8, 2014 [2 favorites]


Kubrick's film is better, and Slate misses the point in it being a comedy. Yes, the movie has jokes and pratfalls, but that film is dark. He made it a comedy because he could not figure out a way of portraying those situations from Red Alert that didn't come off as the most absurd shit ever.

Those conversations about how many millions of Americans would be lost? Those were real conversations being had by people planning responses to nuclear attacks by the USSR. It's insane that those situations didn't make more people question whether different economic models and ideas behind the role of a government (on both the American and Soviet sides) was really actually worth destroying the entire planet over the course of a day or two.
posted by nushustu at 8:32 AM on October 8, 2014 [2 favorites]


so i was 7 y.o. during the cuban missile crisis, living on the southern california coast, and i remember my dad (a fairly decent sailor) saying in the event of a nuclear attack, we'll put out to sea. i still have unanswered questions about that.

the neighbors down the block put in a bomb shelter. there's a story about one of the daughters losing her virginity in it.
posted by bruce at 8:34 AM on October 8, 2014 [1 favorite]


Another entry in the nuclear apocalypse film fest: Miracle Mile (1988, Anthony Edwards).
posted by underthehat at 8:48 AM on October 8, 2014 [3 favorites]


sobarel: "I suppose there always has to be a Threads comment because those of us who watched it an impressionable age haven't stopped thinking about it since."

Yeah, that comment came off a little snottier than necessary, I think. I guess I just find it a little frustrating that in any thread even tangentially related to nuclear war, it gets mentioned quite quickly. Followed by The Day After, Testament, The War Game, When the Wind Blows, etc. Even in this thread, which is not about the aftermath of a nuclear war at all, but in the blundering into one.

But sorry for excess snark.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:53 AM on October 8, 2014


I love the original film, one of my all time favorites...this is the first I'm hearing of the Clooney version though! Is there a version anywhere online that's better quality than 360p? It had to at least have been recorded in 480i for broadcast, no?
posted by trackofalljades at 11:15 AM on October 8, 2014


It was released on DVD (I've got it on my shelf) so higher res copies definitely exist.
posted by BishopsLoveScifi at 3:15 PM on October 8, 2014


It was released on DVD (I've got it on my shelf) so higher res copies definitely exist.


Thanks for the heads up! It seems to have been released in Canada, and is available from a couple sources including Amazon. ^_^
posted by trackofalljades at 9:22 AM on October 9, 2014


Fail-Safe is an amazing, chilling movie and not enough people know about it -- thanks for this post. I watched it fifteen years ago and it still scares me.
posted by brainwane at 2:47 PM on October 13, 2014


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