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Fail Safe (2000)
Director: Stephen Frears

review by Steven Hampton

This is a TV remake of 1964's antinuclear drama, produced in b/w for a live broadcast in four acts, and shown early in 2000, in United States. You should all know the story. After a US strategic bomber mistakenly nukes Moscow, due to the failure of safety procedures, the American president drops atomic bombs on New York to placate the Russians and avert WWIII. Of course, it's ridiculous. Can't happen here now that Soviet communism has collapsed. But the whole point of the tragedy in Fail Safe is that the very existence of hydrogen bombs, and their attendant MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) strategies, makes this insane chain of events possible. If the majority of the world's population were all intelligent, rational, civilised and sensible, the catastrophe of Fail Safe would not be possible. But we aren't and it is. Fail Safe tells a story, at least partly inspired by the Cuban missile crisis, which should have changed the world for the better. Yet it didn't. This new teleplay is sincere and worthy, and more recent military history (from the Falklands, to Kosovo and the Gulf war) does nothing to diminish the chilling effect of the tale. I know it's more usual to praise Kubrick's overly comedic adaptation of similar material, but I think Dr Strangelove simply pokes fun at the MAD concept instead of confronting it. Fail Safe, now as then, faces the unthinkable in an imaginative way, making it one of the most thought-provoking SF scenarios.
   The cast is impressive. Richard Dreyfus plays the President, Noah Wyle his interpreter for phone calls to USSR, Brian Dennehy the SAC general, George Clooney (executive producer) is the American bomber pilot, Harvey Keitel is the USAF colonel ordered to destroy Manhattan, James Cromwell the tiredly apologetic industrialist, while Sam Elliott essays a US senator on a tour of the USAF command base. They all acquit themselves well enough, but Keitel's military pacifist, both Dreyfus and Dennehy, and surprisingly young Wyle (a regular on TV's ER) deserve special mention for excellent performances. The docudrama style works perfectly, and a period setting preserves the Cold War authenticity of the original film.
previously published in VideoVista #18
Related item:
tZ  Thirteen Days film review by Antony Mann
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