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