Fail Safe (2000) Review
Fail Safe, based on the novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, tells the story of what might happen if a nuclear strike was accidentally launched against Russia.
Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, what starts out as a routine drill turns into a desperate race to avert a global catastrophe. A US warplane, loaded with nuclear weapons, is mistakenly sent on a mission to release them over Moscow. Deep beneath the White House, the President (Richard Dreyfuss) and his interpreter Buck (Noah Wyle, ER) negotiate with the Russian Premier and his military advisors, as well as wrestling with US military personnel and advisors. One technical hitch after another conspire to leave them facing the most drastic dilemma of all.
This is essentially a remake of the 1964 version of this story, and while it’s not a patch on the original, it’s still an extremely good effort. The cast is superb, with a number of familiar faces performing well in the supporting roles. In particular, Hank Azaria as Professor Groeteschele makes the most of a fairly unattractive character, and Harvey Keitel, while seeming rather uncomfortable at first, shines as General ‘Blackie’ Black, a character forced into a truly unenviable position. The only really miscast role is the American President, who appears at times during the negotiations to be annoyed and irritable, rather than being concerned with the full implications of the situation.
The direction, by Stephen Frears (Prick Up Your Ears, High Fidelity) is taut and controlled, building the tension minute by minute until the final shocking moments. This was aired live on the CBS network in April 2000, and deliberately shot in black and white ‘letterbox’ format, ostensibly to give it the 1950’s feel. This does work quite well, adding atmosphere and a slight air of claustrophobia to the proceedings. According to the introduction, by Walter Cronkite no less, this was the first production to be broadcast live on CBS for over thirty years, and at times that is apparent, for example, when Brian Dennehy (as General Bogan) has a coughing fit during one scene, the rest of the cast cover for him until he’s able to deliver his line! It doesn’t have that fluid and polished feel which comes through in mainstream Hollywood movies, which does make for a refreshing change.
As one would expect for a film shot in the last two years, the picture is extremely sharp. While this is not an anamorphic transfer, in truth it probably wouldn’t have made any difference, having been filmed specifically for a television broadcast.
The sound is Dolby Digital and as you’d expect is pin sharp. In fact, it’s so sharp that on occasions you can hear the background noise of the studio! What stands out is the fact that there is no music at all, which adds to the sombre mood.
There are no extras to speak of - just a list of cast and crew, and the obligatory trailer (which mercifully doesn’t give away too much). Considering the subject matter, and the people involved, it is a little disappointing to have so few extras.
The menus are very plain, almost military in style and in keeping with the setting of the film. One nice touch is the scene selection menu, which features a silhouette of a plane, which switches from green to red as you make your selection.
This is a well-made attempt to film a fairly difficult and serious story. While it’s not an easy film to watch, given the subject matter, it’s a gripping and dramatic production. Certain elements, such as the black & white format, the slightly claustrophobic atmosphere and the very familiar faces work very well together.
This film does suffer in comparison with the original version, however, where the relationships and background were set up in much more detail, leading to ultimate resolution of the various strands of the story. In this version, there are various scenes that don’t seem to make a whole lot of sense, for example the final exchanges between Grady (George Clooney), the pilot of the errant bomber and his son. It’s also very similar to Dr Strangelove, both in story and settings, despite going for straight drama rather than satire. However, minor gripes aside, it’s well worth a couple of hours of your time and is a chilling depiction of something that could happen all too easily.