I've enjoyed some of Stephen Frears past works like High Fidelity, Mrs Henderson Presents and his latest The Queen, so I was intrigued enough to pick up a DVD movie released some 8 years ago made for television, a CBS TV special that was broadcast live during the time. I'd bet it was a novelty and I could have seen it before, but nonetheless it didn't stop me from sitting through this rather gripping drama from start to end.
Filmed in black and white, Fail Safe is set during the Cold War, where hostilities between the US and the Soviets are at an all time high, and military doctrine on both sides dictate world annihilation should anyone decide to provoke the other by firing off their nukes to the other's territory. And to ensure they don't get caught offguard, the US military has a system of checks and balances to ensure continuity of their battle plans even if there's a break in the chain of command, a mixture of fail safe elements involving processes, hardware and the men who take instructions down the line.
Except for having to deal with Murphy's Law. In certain aspects, it might seem like Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove, but this movie, based upon the novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, doesn't include satire, and played it out in more serious tones, where there are enough going on that keeps it fast paced. The story revolves around four fronts, each having to face their own dilemma and having to contemplate their actions, and those which have moral implications, are always never easy to be dealt with. From the top you have the President (Richard Dreyfuss) and his Russian translator Buck (Noah Wyle) trying to convince the Russian premier about what's going to happen, and to defuse potential hostilities while at the same time having to build trust. You got to hand it to Dreyfuss for his role here in political gambit, acting with opposite Wyle, and a phone.
The second front takes place in a war room where generals and think tanks trade blows in deciding what next to advise the president, with some naturally urging restraint, while others wanting to seize the opportunity to gain the upper hand through an accidental pre-emptive strike. Harvey Keitel goes up against Hank Azaria here, as a Brigadier General whom the President trusts, up against some dangerous philosophy of Professor Groeteschele's. The third front perhaps has the most actors placed in a single set, the war room where a complete view of how the plot is unfolding, gets put on display here. Loyalties come into question, and so does basic human decency. The characters here are also mixed and provides a more balanced view, from the military with Brian Dennehy and John Diehl, to politicians represented by Sam Elliott, and the vendor who provides the military with the computerized hardware, as represented by James Cromwell.
Last but not least, the fly boys who are on the execution (pardon the pun) front, perhaps there to provide some possibility for action, but again, the sets are purpose built on soundstages. George Clooney and Don Cheadle partner in this area as they play guess and second guessing each other, being cut off from the chain of command, and as per their training, are out to carry their mission to a T, regardless what else they are told.
Fail Safe tells a precautionary tale, that while we may plan for every conceivable scenario using a siege like mentality, there really isn't a totally fool-proof plan, and there are bound to be loopholes or cracks due to the assumptions we have to take or accept. Do we trust a human to make a judgement call, or rely on a calculating machine to do so based on predicates and cold logic? And what if the machine fails, do we know enough that it is wrong, and what measures there are to be placed for rectification? Can we do that fast enough? There are of course enough movies out there with machines like HAL and SkyNet going rogue, and addressing similar issues.
Ultimately it's about control - when do we decide to relinquish, and whether we are able to seize it back when the need calls for it - and the moral dilemma that comes with weighted decisions that has repercussions beyond the immediate. Superb character acting and nailbiting setup all the way to the unexpected finale makes this film a winner.
Code 3 DVD by Warner Home Video comes in letterboxed format. Audio is presented in its original English track, or dubbed Japanese track. Subtitles are available in English, Japanese and Chinese. Bare bones version comes with a 25 chapter scene selection, and a trailer of Ocean's 13 (1:35).