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Fail Safe - Still Relevant

Updated on July 29, 2015


Walter Matthau as Groteschele
Walter Matthau as Groteschele

Theoretical Play-Thoughts of the Bomb

"Fail Safe" is "Dr. Strangelove" absent any humor (black or otherwise). The story elements are VERY similar in many ways. The story begins with a dream by a General Black (Dan O'Herlihy) that depicts the death of a bull at the hands of a matador. It's a dream General Black has been having repeatedly. He doesn't understand the symbolism behind the dream, but confesses to his wife that it is a premonition of his own death.

The story revolves around something going wrong with the automation involved in nuclear defense -- the lack of the human element. The inability to recall a fighter wing from their fail-safe positions puts the US in a position of not only being forced to aid the Soviets in shooting down our own aircraft but since the recall effort is not entirely successful, it induces the president to the terrible but unavoidably practical decision of destroying New York City as the only means of deterring an all-out nuclear war.

The stolid figure of Henry Fonda as president (why don't we have figures like this actually leading the country), does what he can to avert the crisis -- and the underground bunker scenes are some of the most powerful ever produced in Hollywood.

As in "Dr. Strangelove," the lone pilot is instructed to ignore all communications because they may be enemy diversions. The voice of the president and even his own wife do not dissuade the pilot from carrying out his mission. Thus, the president is presented with little choice but to assuage the Soviets by deliberately ordering General Black (a trusted friend and former classmate) to perform the unthinkable upon an American metropolis -- equivalent destruction to the one destined for Moscow. General Black's own family is residing in NY City, so his order by the president is anything but abstract. "Blackie" instructs his crew mates that they are to have nothing to do with the release of the bomb -- that he will carry out this responsibility himself, and he does. The dream of the bull and the matador sweeps through his mind, and he probably dies from a stroke or heart attack out of sheer stress.

The film thus comes full circle. It's difficult to gage how the younger generation might react to this film. Living in an era where a terrorist attack seems to be the major threat, it's hard to imagine anyone born before 1953 having a palpable sense of what it was like growing up in a country that faced uncertain, instantaneous annihilation -- not just of a few city blocks but (most likely) the extinction of our entire species.

The only flaw I could detect with this film was with the Walter Matthau character (Groeteschele) who originally is depicted as a kind of RAND theorist who has a solid, humanistic grasp on the horror of nuclear war but transforms into an individual that embraces the idea of a full-out attack to minimize US losses. Somewhere (inexplicably) his cold/analytical but nevertheless humanistic bearings turn completely hawkish (not unlike General Buck Turgedson -- George C. Scott in "Strangelove" -- whose only concern is capping the loss to American lives).

Theorists such as Groteschele live on in places like the RAND corporation and other think-tanks that attempt to calculate the impact of things most of us would find impossible to contemplate. The Pentagon continues to play its war games against various foes and develops reports on the best startegy to which we should adhere. We may no longer have a doomsday clock for a confrontation against the Russians, but we have now identified new enemies and new ways of creating a conflagration. And, as we saw with President Obama's live-time viewing of the assassination of Osama bin Laden, split second decisions are every bit as relevant today as they were during the 60's.

We rely on the think tanks to provide us with an accurate view of every conceivable scenario for any given confrontation. But, we shouldn't forget that these reports are based on speculation and do not take into account a possible domino effect. The human error factor remains closely intertwined in our military/political decisions, so, if anything, the possibility of miscalculation or computer malfunction remains as pertinent today as ever.

Clip From "Fail Safe"

The Bomb


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      Poetic Fool 5 years ago

      I just watched this again on TV a couple of months ago and the movie ages extremely well. I think it was one of Lumet's best and having no score was genius. It was purely the acting of such greats as Fonda, Matthau and others that made it so spellbinding. Unfortunately, it was released shortly after Dr. Strangelove and the movie was somewhat overlooked in it's hoopla. Had it been released either before or much later than Strangelove, I think it would have made a much bigger impact.

      All that said, this was a good analysis which I feel reaches the correct conclusion. The human error element is just as large, if not an even larger problem today than in the past. Well done!

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      Theresa Ast 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Fascinating essay. Its been years and years since I saw Dr. Strangelove and I never saw Fail-Safe. Perhaps I should take a look at both of them sometime soon. Great analysis and comparison and an thoughtful and compelling conclusion. Good work. SHARING