Fail-Safe DVD Review

By David Mumpower

May 31, 2007

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

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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.

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