Director – Stephen Frears, Live Broadcast Director – Martin J. Pasetta Jr, Screenplay – Walter Bernstein, Based on the Novel by Eugene Burdick & Harvey Wheeler, Producer – Tom Park, Photography (b&w) – John Alonzo, Production Design – Richard Hoover. Production Company – Mayville Pictures/Warner Brothers Television
Richard Dreyfuss (The President), Brian Dennehy (General Bogan), George Clooney (Colonel Jack Grady), Noah Wyle (Buck), Hank Azaria (Professor Groteschele), Harvey Keitel (General Black), John Diehl (Colonel Cassio), Don Cheadle (Captain Pearce), Sam Elliott (Congressman Raskob), James Cromwell (Gordon Napp), Norman Lloyd (Secretary Swenson), Cynthia Ettinger (Mrs Black), Will Rothhaar (Donny Grady), William Smitrovich (General Stark)
1964 at the height of Cold War tensions. A faulty circuit in the computers at Strategic Air Command in Omaha, Nebraska, accidentally sends a signal to the Group 6 bomber squadron over the Arctic Circle that tells the crew that a nuclear strike has been called and that they are to proceed to their intended target – Moscow. An emergency is called and The President tries to contact the squadron’s commander and rescind the order. However, the crew have been trained to believe that the enemy are likely to use tactics to try and fool them and ignore these messages. The Air Force is unable to shoot the bombers down and so The President takes the radical move of contacting the Russians and giving them the information to do so but this proves equally unsuccessful. With the certainty that the bomber is likely to reach its target and detonate a nuclear weapon on Moscow, The President takes the only step left – that of ordering one of his own bombers to drop a weapon on New York City in equivalent payment for the destruction of Moscow.
Fail-Safe (1964) was one of the classics of 1960s Cold War cinema. Directed in bare, stark terms by Sidney Lumet, it depicted the tensions that result when a trivial accident triggers a US nuclear war alert and how the machinery of the system exerted a stranglehold that made such a disaster frighteningly possible.
This was a remake of Fail-Safe conducted for tv. The remake came with the novelty of being filmed as a live broadcast. Possibly the filmmakers were thinking of something akin to Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds (1938) radio broadcast, although more likely executive producer and star George Clooney was inspired by ER (1994-2009), the tv series where Clooney had first come to fame, which had similarly broadcast one of its episodes live. A number of other shows around the same time – The Bill, Coronation Street, Will and Grace, The Drew Carey Show, The West Wing and the remake of The Quatermass Experiment (2005) – also attempted the novelty of episodes that were broadcast live. The Fail-Safe remake was conducted by British director Stephen Frears who has also made celebrated films such as Dangerous Liaisons (1988), Mary Reilly (1996), High-Fidelity (2000), Dirty Pretty Things (2002) and The Queen (2006).
Fail Safe also came out the same year as the tv remake of another classic of the Cold War era nuclear anxiety – the mini-series of On the Beach (2000), which remade On the Beach (1959), the film that started the genre of grimly serious nuclear war films off. What is noticeable about both the On the Beach and Fail Safe remakes is that they come divorced from the 1960s era that gave the originals their stark sense of immediacy. On the Beach 2000 turned the end of the world into a lush, sweeping romantic drama. Fail Safe 2000 at least sets the remake in the same year that the original came out – 1964 – as well as shoots the show in black-and-white as did the original. However, in watching Fail Safe 2000 there is no longer the sense that we are the in the midst of a nightmare that could have been ripped from the headlines, as you had in watching the original, rather that this has been replaced by a sense of nostalgia – that we are looking back at a bygone era that never came to pass.
The screenplay for Fail Safe 2000 is credited to the same Walter Bernstein that wrote the original. One is not familiar with the original on a line for line basis enough to be able to say to what extent Fail Safe 2000 has used exactly the same script or not. Certainly, there are some minor changes between the two versions – a brief addition that shows the President’s wife is in New York City as the bomb is dropped and the removal of a scene where Groeteschele picks up a woman at a party. The emphasis is also slightly different. Rather than the madness of Groeteschele’s speeches, we now get Harvey Keitel going on about the madness of the concept of a winnable nuclear war. There also seems to be more emphasis on the scenes where the US military grudgingly decide to trust the Russians. Stephen Frears also makes an effort to humanise the characters that tended to act as boilerplate mouthpieces for speeches in the original. Especially good in this regard are the scenes with Brian Dennehy and the Russian general saying how they nearly met, or John Diehl’s colonel calling his mother to say goodbye but she being too busy watching a Red Sox game.
Even though one is seeing a recorded version of the film rather than the original live broadcast, Fail Safe 2000 is well mounted. What works to the benefit of a live broadcast is the fact that the original takes place between only four locations – the military conference room, the Air Force command centre, The President’s communication bunker and the interior of the bomber cockpit. Stephen Frears keeps the show constantly moving back and forward between these locations or via the use of radio/telephone conversations between parties. The show works with far more of a suspenseful drive than one might have thought a live drama capable of doing. The scenes at Strategic Air Command and with the President on the telephone are particularly well sustained. There are some slightly spotty camera changes during the scenes in the conference room but the show is so seamlessly conducted you would not guess it was a live drama without knowing that it was.
Considering the nature of the live broadcast, Stephen Frears gets some expert performances from all of the actors. In the Presidential bunker scenes, Richard Dreyfuss and Noah Wyle do a great job of reacting to non-present events. Hank Azaria, the voice of Moe, Apu and Chief Wiggum in The Simpsons (1989– ), gives a fine cold, clipped performance as Groeteschele. Stephen Frears does a marvellous job of highlighting his actors, in depicting the way the tension moves across the face of Richard Dreyfuss’ President or the indecision that plays across George Clooney’s pilot when he hears his son’s voice on the radio. The fact that all of the actors are playing live and without the benefit for retakes makes these performances all the more exceptional.
In an attempt to make the film’s message relevant today, Fail Safe 2000 ends on a listing of all the countries that have nuclear weapons. Some of these claims are a little dubious – Israel has never openly confirmed that it does, while subsequent real world events have shown that at the time Fail Safe 2000 was made it was very unlikely that North Korea had any nuclear capacity. Nevertheless, Fail Safe makes a relevant point that the nuclear threat of the original film is still a very present one.