It’s best to think of this movie as the estranged fraternal twin of Dr. Strangelove. Fail Safe is the sober, humorless one. Both films cover virtually the same territory, that of an inadvertent nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, but while Stanley Kubrick treated Armageddon as a subject worthy of absurdist gallows farce, Sidney Lumet takes it seriously for some reason.
In this story, a glitch in an automated system sends squadron of B-58 bombers past their “fail-safe” points toward their targets in the Soviet Union. By the time they get clear of Soviet jamming, they have passed the point where they are trained to ignore any recall orders, even from someone pretending to be the President, to prevent the Russians from disrupting the attack with false messages.
The story follows two threads, one involving efforts by Strategic Air Command (SAC) to get the pilots to listen and, failing that, shoot the bombers down themselves. Simultaneously, the president (Henry Fonda) contacts the Soviet chairman to try to convince him that the attack was an accident and, if necessary, help the Soviets shoot down the planes.
Arguing against this course of action is a hawkish civilian advisor, Professor Groeteschele (Walter Matthau), who believes that the U.S. should exploit the situation and follow up the accidental attack with a full-scale nuclear assault to wipe out the Soviets for good.
When American efforts to stop the attack fail, the men at SAC reluctantly help the Soviets try to destroy their own bombers. Unfortunately, mutual mistrust sabotages their efforts to get the last surviving bomber, which now seems certain to reach Moscow.
The president is then faced with a wrenching decision in order to head off full-scale nuclear war.
Released in the same year as Dr. Strangelove, Lumet’s film suffered financially in the shadow of Kubrick’s similarly-themed and more famous film, which had been released first. That is a shame, because it really works as an edge-of-your-seat thriller. About the only element that doesn’t work for me, storywise, is the Matthau character, and not because his viewpoint is almost monstrously coldblooded. Groeteschele just never seem organic to the rest of the characters in the movie. He’s like a sociopathic one-man Greek chorus in a play that doesn’t need one.
This film (and the book on which it was based) lay the blame for the story’s events on man’s dependence on machines that ultimately fail. Kubrick’s bleaker vision laid the full responsibility on the human element. Even when the machines work perfectly, we still destroy ourselves.
So if you looking for a good, exceedingly well-made tandem of films from the same year to throw you into a black, suicidal depression, you can’t beat this and Dr. Strangelove. Just for safety’s sake, however, keep a copy of Mary Poppins handy, just in case.