Think of Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe (1964) as Dr. Strangelove (also 1964) without the laughs. This a very earnest suspenser about a technical glitch causing a bomber to be unstoppably on its way to drop an atomic bomb on Moscow. The only recourse—if it can’t be stopped—is for the U.S. to do likewise to New York City as proof that the attack on the USSR was an accident. It’s that or face all-out nuclear war. Perhaps because it was so serious and depressing—and came out after Strangelove—it was not nearly as big a success and hasn’t become a standard classic. It is, however, very much of its era and not without interest or power.
The strength of the film—apart from Henry Fonda’s performance as the president—is also its greatest weakness. It has a kind of drab look that makes it feel like a television broadcast. That’s exacerbated by the typically graceless Sidney Lumet direction. What this results in is a movie that almost feels real. While that increases the movie’s power, it doesn’t make for very appealing or entertaining viewing. Dr. Strangelove disturbed the viewer and made the viewer think, but it held the viewer by entertaining at the same time. This, on the other hand, tends to be “Where are the razor blades?” depressing. But in its way that may well be a more accurate reflection of what those times felt like than Kubrick’s film. Unfortunately—but probably necessarily—Fail-Safe undermines itself with a disclaimer “assuring” the viewer that what we’ve just seen couldn’t actually happen.