Few filmmakers can match the quality or vastness of Sidney Lumet's filmography. Ever since his legendary debut film 12 Angry Men in 1957, Lumet directed more than one movie a year on average till his last release Before the Devil Knows You're Dead in 2007. In the 50 years between these two masterpieces, the auteur par excellence gave Hollywood some of its finest classics, such as Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, Network, The Verdict, etc. Even his lesser-known works are better than the best films of most filmmakers. One such underappreciated classic from the American master is the 1964 Cold War thriller Fail-Safe based on the 1962 novel of the same name by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler. A flop at the box-office, its failure can be attributed to the release of Stanley Kubrick's immensely popular satire on nuclear war Dr Strangelove, a few months before its release. Nevertheless, Lumet's film has aged well and continues to enjoy appreciation from film lovers.
Fail-Safe serves as a cautionary tale against the deadly consequences of our over-reliance on and blind faith in the accuracy of machines. When military equipment capable of triggering thermonuclear catastrophe gets out of human control, it can lead to a doomsday scenario. This forms the premise of the film in which a mechanical failure erroneously sends an order to a group of U.S. vindicator bombers to drop two megaton hydrogen bombs on Moscow. The result would be the destruction of the Soviet Union capital and the inevitable death of all lives.
During the Cold War tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States, both nations were in the race for upping their military capabilities and outsmarting each other. This led to many advancements in the field of technology that repeatedly proved helpful in warding off significant threats from enemies. And the defence forces of these nations took great pride in their military prowess, state-of-the-art technology and well-organised systems. In Fail-Safe, we witness this pride in General Bogan (Frank Overton) at the Strategic Air Command (SAC), Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Nebraska, when he flaunts their radar capabilities and supposedly fail-safe processes to VIP visitors. But soon this absolute trust in technology proves costly. A mechanical failure accidentally triggers the fail-safe box in the Group-6 bombers flying near enemy territory. The coded message is to enter Soviet territory and bomb Moscow. To make matters worse, the bombers cannot confirm the orders with the SAC base as the Soviets have jammed their radio transmissions.
It takes a couple of telephonic attempts by the U.S. President, played by Henry Fonda, to convince his Soviet counterpart that it is not an attack but an accident on their part. Eventually, the Soviet Chairman admits that his scientists had jammed the U.S. radio communications, based on a wrong alert detected by their computers, which work on the law of averages and probability. Thus, technology plays the devil for the Soviets as well. The jamming is finally lifted but it is a bit too late. By then, the U.S. bombers have entered enemy territory and from that point onwards their orders are to not trust any communication as it could be the enemy imitating the U.S. President's voice. We see the U.S. helplessly becoming victims of their own protocols. It is their fail-safe methods that fail them! Lumet masterfully captures the palpable tension at the SAC and underground room of the U.S. President by employing close-up shots and dynamic camera angles to evoke a growing feeling of claustrophobia.
Trust is the main theme in Fail-Safe. While both the nations have utmost faith in their machines, that eventually backfires; it is also the lack of human trust that leads to their doom. There are advisors in the U.S. camp who insist on a fully-fledged attack on the Soviets fearing they would retaliate by waging a nuclear war. Also, there is Colonel Cascio (Fritz Weaver) who interprets the whole event as a trap by the Soviets and persistently pleads with General Bogan to declare war. The mistrust at the Soviets' end was responsible for them not being willing to believe the U.S. claims of the incident being an accident. Had the Soviet Chairman not doubted the U.S. President's plea and lifted the jamming quickly, the bombers could have been called back through radio before entering enemy territory. These are important lessons for mankind that Fail-Safe packs in the form of a taut thriller. This is vintage Sidney Lumet at his best!