Fail-Safe DVD Review
By David Mumpower
May 31, 2007

Clooney and Cheadle talk smack about the rest of Ocean's Thirteen.

On January 29, 1964, legendary auteur Stanley Kubrick released Dr. Stangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb. It was immediately hailed as a cinematic masterpiece that firmly mocked the Hollywood craze of the moment, the Cold War drama. This had not been Kubrick's original plan. He had set out to create a theatrical adaptation of the trendy Cold War novel of the early 1960s, Red Alert. That book by author Peter George proved so popular that a similar novel written by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler entitled Fail-Safe copied far too much of the premise. In the end, George sued for plagiarism, and Fail-Safe's authors were forced to settle out of court.

This created a particularly unique tension in Hollywood because while the courts were considering the matter of Fail-Safe's similarities to Red Alert, Kubrick had been made aware of a movie adaptation of the former book. Even worse, this competing project based on similar themes was directed by Academy Award-nominated director Sidney Lumet and starred screen legend Henry Fonda as the POTUS. Kubrick had the rights to Red Alert, but Lumet had the rights to Fail-Safe; both projects were in production at the same time. Kubrick was so concerned by the Lumet movie that he pressured Columbia Pictures to delay the release of their other property (Columbia owned the distribution rights to both). With the overriding legal issues of plagiarized ideas a key sticking point, Columbia agreed, delaying Fail-Safe until October 7, 1964.

Anyone who has watched Dr. Stangelove as well as the original Fail-Safe is probably somewhat surprised by this bit of movie lore. One is quite possibly the best satirical film ever created while the other is a taut drama that plays the idea of simultaneous nuclear destruction straight. That they tell a story so similar that the authors of Fail-Safe were forced to pay off the author Dr. Strangelove's source material is important, though.

Kubrick's work has been hailed as a masterpiece, attaining critical and financial success as well as a position of importance on AFI's lists of 100 Years, 100 Movies and 100 Years, 100 Laughs lists. To this date, Dr. Strangelove remains one of the most often watched titles of the 1960s. Fail-Safe, on the other hand, was a box office disappointment - partly due to Kubrick's legal maneuvering with Columbia - as well as a movie that has been criminally underrated over the past four decades. Whereas Kubrick found the source material too dry and was unwilling to create drama from themes he found humorously paradoxical, Lumet dutifully recreated the action of the novel Fail-Safe (and thereby accidentally duplicated Red Alert) with the resulting output widely regarded as the best Cold War drama of the era. Any self-respecting movie lover should track down a copy of this title if they have never before done so. This is no longer the only option for watching a quality production of Fail-Safe, however.

In 2000, George Clooney had largely put the Batman & Robin disaster in his rear view mirror. Star turns in critically acclaimed instant classics Out of Sight and Three Kings had restored much of the promise his work on ER had offered before he left that show in 1999. His first true post-ER project was an ambitious live television recreation of the popular work of Sidney Lumet. CBS authorized a one time movie event wherein a star-laden cast anchored by Clooney would be given 120 minutes (86 minutes plus commercial breaks) to offer a modern update of the 1964 dramatic classic.

Given the daring challenge of a live broadcast on network television, several sublime talents were drawn to the project. Academy Award-nominated director Stephen Frears - currently riding high in 2007 due to his tour de force work on The Queen - was tapped to direct. Clooney talked ER buddy Noah Wyle and future Ocean's 11 co-star Don Cheadle into playing key roles. Noted character actors such as Richard Dreyfuss, Brian Dennehy, James Cromwell, Harvey Keitel, Sam Elliott, Bill Smitrovich and John Diehl all joined the cast of this ambitious endeavor. Apu himself, Hank Azaria, even took on a role. All of the men were excited by the premise of recreating a black and white thriller as a live network play of sorts, the kind hearkening back to the early days of color television. The results of the ambitious project were universally positive.

Fail-Safe begins with an introduction by CBS icon Walter Cronkite. He explains that there hasn't been a live broadcast such as this shown on his network in 39 years. This aspect alone defines what is unique and laudable about Fail Safe. Rarely does Hollywood talent puts itself out there as much as Clooney has done here. Everyone involved is flying without a net in front of 20 million viewers.

The work of Fail Safe screenplay writer Walter Bernstein has been left alone. There is no point in trying to improve such an already great script. In fact, due to run-time constraints from a live broadcast, a few less important elements have been left out. The plot remains the same, though. A security and protection system is in place for a series of bomber jets. When an unidentified flying object enters American space, a group of military personnel is sent to investigate the situation. All of them save for one group are informed that it's an innocuous aircraft gone off-course, and that the situation is not dangerous. Group Six of the Strategic Air Command, however, is accidentally transmitted an attack code (the titular Fail Safe) that identifies the fact that hostilities have occurred that pose a grave threat to American soil. Believing the country to be under attack, this group of pilots heads to Moscow in order to deliver a payload of nuclear warheads to Russia, the only country they believe could be attacking the United States.

With a rogue element of jets armed with nuclear devices headed toward the land of their Cold War enemy, the American president has no choice but to discuss military options with Soviets. A way of stopping these men from accidentally starting nuclear holocaust (and a very quick World War III) must be discovered before they arrive at their target. Anyone who has seen Dr. Strangelove recognizes the thematic similarities here, but a key difference is that you should not expect a musical interlude of We'll Meet Again at the end. Fail Safe is not played for laughs. It's a dramatic examination of just how easy it would have been for either America or the Soviet Union to have a disastrous result take us all into the age of nuclear winter. The result is a chilling, taut drama with Clooney offering one of the finest performances of his career as dedicated Group Six leader Colonel Grady, a man who firmly believes in his training and sense of duty to the point that it may destroy the world.

Those of you who have followed the work of George Clooney will immediately recognize the genesis of his later directorial effort, Good Night, and Good Luck. The black and white broadcasts in both productions are an obvious parallel, but less obvious is the respect for the early days of television as well as the inclusion of Cronkite, the last sacred cow of journalism. Fans of the Ocean's franchise, the tie-in that has caused a desire for Fail Safe's release (a trailer for Ocean's 13 is included on the disc), will also appreciate the fact that working with such a star-laden cast gave Clooney and his producing partner, Steven Soderbergh confidence that their summer shoot, Ocean's 11, would be able to handle all of the (massive) egos involved. Its release in December of 2001 confirmed this.

Fail Safe is perhaps the last great network attempt to call back to the halcyon days of live broadcasts. Since this performance on April 9, 2000, there has not been any other offering even remotely similar to it on network television. This would be reason enough to justify checking out the DVD. Given the director and stars involved as well as the source material, however, it's nothing short of an imperative for true movie lovers of an era gone by to grab a copy of this disc. And if you are just a Clooney fan who wants to see him having a blast in a role close to his heart, that works, too. Fail-Safe is highly recommended for people of all ages, something I unfortunately don't get to say too often these days.