Starring: Henry Fonda, Dan O’Herlihy, Walter Matthau
Director: Sidney Lumet
Running Time: 112 mins
Fail-Safe is an American film about the desperate scramble that unfolds after a mechanical failure accidentally orders six US bombers to drop atomic bombs on Moscow, with seemingly no way to stop the outbreak of nuclear war.
Countless movies have tackled the devastating and terrifying potential of the outbreak of nuclear war, but there’s something even more frightening about Fail-Safe, released at the height of Cold War tension, and directed by one of Hollywood’s masters in Sidney Lumet.
Although it starts slowly, this film is well worth sticking with to the bitter end, as it manages to craft a mesmerising, nail-biting rollercoaster out of almost nothing. Starting as a mechanical error that leads to a misunderstanding by bomber pilots, the way that the situation spirals so dangerously out of control in this film is utterly exhilarating to experience.
Lumet’s eye for tension works wonders in Fail-Safe, as it gradually builds in pace, intensity and unpredictability towards a spectacular crescendo, as we see the US and Soviet governments desperately scramble when they both realise that nuclear war could be just hours away.
Bolstered by sharp but atmospheric and gloomy black-and-white cinematography, there’s something overwhelmingly unsettling about Fail-Safe from the word go, an atmosphere which only becomes more potent as the story unfolds in terrifyingly realistic fashion.
And that’s another thing that makes Fail-Safe so frightening. While there are countless films that have taken on the outbreak of nuclear war, Fail-Safe keeps its feet firmly on the ground, utilising its carefully-plotted screenplay and measured performances to prevent things from becoming too far-fetched.
Despite the fact that the film ends with a real statement from the US military assuring people that this kind of situation could never happen, it all feels entirely possible. This isn’t a thriller of big explosions or melodramatic outbursts, but a story of people desperately wrangling to correct a mistake that could have devastating consequences.
Complete with all of the Cold War tension that was bubbling over in the early 1960s, the film features a powerful note of melancholy and regret over the potential that the world could have ever reached such a point in its history, with that sombre tone looming over every breakneck moment of the story as it builds towards its nail-biting crescendo.
With the film set almost entirely in the heart of government miles underground in nuclear bunkers, there is a claustrophobia and a sense of stress that surrounds the characters, although Henry Fonda is absolutely mesmerising as an impressively confident and largely competent President.
In short, Fail-Safe is a spellbinding Cold War thriller which packs a punch that few others in the genre could ever hope to. Featuring exhilarating storytelling, ingenious direction, enthralling performances, a powerful atmosphere and resonant themes, this slow-starting film turns into one of the most frighteningly believable depictions of the terror of nuclear war you’ll ever see, and one that will have you biting your nails right the way through. So, that’s why I’m giving Fail-Safe an 8.1 overall.