Fail Safe – A tension fuelled analysis of Cold War hysteria

Regardless of era, generation, class or political leaning, the premise of nuclear war is a truly terrifying thought. The idea that we could all be blown away in a moment, crushed by a cloud of radiation and be no more in a matter of seconds is rather terrifying. There have and always will be films to deduce what exactly could be the outcome of a nuclear war. Classics like Dr. Strangelove from the acclaimed mind of Stanley Kubrick are key to looking on the bright side of nuclear annihilation, while Sheffield based Threads shows us that surviving may be a worse fate than perishing in a worldwide destructive episode. Fail Safe, a classic piece of Sidney Lumet’s filmography, finds a medium of how a truly serious issue spawned from an accident can hopefully be defused by cooler heads in power.  

Starring a whole host of recognisable faces including Henry Fonda, Walther Matthau and Larry Hagman, Fail Safe follows the tense engagement of the United States and Russian government at the height of the Cold War. With a limited window of time to defuse an all-out nuclear crisis, we follow the President of the United States (Fonda) as he directs orders to numerous bodies of government in the hopes of avoiding all-out war. Fonda is a personal favourite of mine from the Golden Era of Hollywood. Observing his work in the likes of 12 Angry Men or The Ox-Bow Incident was mesmerising, but even in lesser remembered films like The Battle of the Bulge, he provides consistently brilliant pieces of work. Fail Safe may be his finest performance, a bold claim to make considering his perfect performance within Lumet’s jury-based thriller.  

Fonda provides a performance that the audience can latch onto. His performance is contained in one singular room for much of the film, he interacts with various government bodies and it gives us a solid look into the pressure and stress of a desperately dangerous accident. Fonda’s facial flickers give as much away to the audience as the ticking pressure found in the war room. Besides a truly great performance from Fonda as The President of the United States, we’re given a treat from usually funny man Walther Matthau. Another personal favourite of mine from the frequent Jack Lemmon partnerships, his performance essentially opens the film, the concept of the positives and negatives of nuclear war illustrated rather bluntly by Professor Groeteschele. Matthau’s performance as Groeteschele is a consistently bleak and enjoyable addition to a cast of varyingly great characters. He is side-lined somewhat when the film begins to get itself into gear, but his echoes of damnation at seeking peace are felt lingering throughout the entire film.  

Lumet’s direction holds these great performances together with fascinating results. It’s as stylish and earth-shatteringly contemporary as the likes of his other work in Network and 12 Angry Men. His dissection of real-world issues is as important to his direction as it is to the performances. There’s a genuine believability encapsulated throughout feeding the tension for much of the running time, the consistency of the direction on display is key. Camera work that puts most contemporary war thrillers to shame, none of them have truly been able to capture the realism and torturous rigidity of the inevitable disaster that is slowly unfolding throughout.  

I’ve got a somewhat grim fascination with nuclear war. We studied it briefly when I was doing an A-Level on history. Talking of and around the destruction that “contained” tests produced in the middle of nowhere was a terrifying conversation to have. Even thinking that the level of destruction is possible through Fail Safe is truly unnerving, even more so when you realise that technology and warfare instruments are constantly being tweaked to become more powerful and world-ending than ever before. Fail Safe manages to capture that manic horror and keeps a consistently enjoyable terror throughout to make one of the finest dramatic thrillers we shall probably ever see. 

Click image to get Fail Safe from Amazon.

 

FAIL SAFE IS OUT NOW ON THE CRITERION COLLECTION

Ewan Gleadow

Ewan's first time at the cinema was as a four year old, crying his way through Elf. That set a precedent for his viewing experiences, and developed into a film criticism journey that has taken him to University to study film journalism. Reviewing just about anything and everything that gets released, there's no quality filter to what he'll be watching.

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