Fail Safe – DVD Review

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Stephen Frears

Richard Dreyfus… President
Noah Wyle… Buck
Brian Dennehy… Gen. Bogan

Release Date: June 5, 2007
Running Time: 84 minutes

There aren’t really all that many new movies set in the 1960s. Even fewer of those mirror the 60s look. But Fail Safe is one of those movies. It’s a Cold War era, potential nuclear apocalypse, political thriller. But is it any good?

Fail Safe is based on the 1960 novel of the same name. The novel is decidedly similar to the 1958 novel, Red Alert; it’s so similar in fact that the author, Peter George, sued the authors of Fail Safe, Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler. That’s significant because Red Alert served as the source material for Dr. Strangelove (Red Alert is far more serious than the Kubrick classic but many elements of the book carry over into the movie). As a result, Fail Safe feels a hell of a lot like Strangelove. Not only is the plot similar, but Richard Dreyfus’ portrayal of the president is rather similar to Peter Sellers’ portrayal of President Muffley. The black-and-white photography that both films share only serves to further remind one of Dr. Strangelove. As a result, you may rather wish to see Slim Pickens bucking a bomb as it is dropped on its target instead of Fail Safe.

One of the more unusual aspects of the film is that it was aired live. I don’t quite understand why they chose the live airing option however; it’s not as if the movie takes in real time or is done in a newscast format or something. The live aspect makes it feel more like you’re watching a play than a movie.

While I enjoy plays, a movie should never feel like watching a play; it makes suspension of belief much more difficult. Some of the actors seem to take a while to get going for some reason as well. The acting in many of the early scenes leaves much to be desired. Harvey Keitel, while in good form by the second act, is particularly weak in the movie’s opening moments; the ability to do more than one take would have really helped.

In addition to some shaky acting, the early moments of Fail Safe contain some rather sloppy writing. There’s a sequence wherein James Cromwell’s character tries to explain how the fail safe device works and there’s so much emphasis put on how the fail safe can’t possibly fail that it induces laughter. Yes, it’s supposed to be ironic that the device designed to ensure against human error or interference ends up causing their problem, but the only way the scene could have been less subtle is if they flashed the words, “THIS IS IRONIC. THE FAIL SAFE IS GOING TO FAIL!” up on the screen in giant, flashing letters.

Once you get past the similarities to Strangelove and some early awkwardness, there is a good movie to be found. For the most part, the higher the tension level gets, the better Fail Safe becomes.

Richard Dreyfus’ performance is top-notch. His character spends almost the entire movie in a sparsely decorated room with only one other character – a translator – and a speaker phone to communicate with but he still manages to do a better job of connecting with the audience than anyone else in the movie.

I loved the resolution to the film. I won’t give anything away here, but the way the potential nuclear strike on Russia is (or is not) resolved was innovative. Generally speaking with potential apocalypse movies there are only a couple different ways for the movie to end; Fail Safe manages to come up with something different. And in doing something different, the ending actually has more impact than a lot of your standard ‘everything blows up’ apocalypse scenarios.

Unfortunately, as great as the resolution is, the actual execution of the resolution is a bit cheesy. I’d go into more detail about how and why it is cheesy, but doing so would involve a major spoiler. Suffice to say, if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know what scene I’m referring to here. This is another thing that can probably be blamed on the live nature of the broadcast; you can’t really do much in the way of snazzy editing when you’re airing something live.

On a whole, if you’re willing to ignore the obvious similarities to Kubrick’s satire and can sit patiently through the film’s opening moments, there’s a riveting movie to be had here.

The Video
The movie intentionally goes for an early 60s look with the black and white presentation. But the video itself is clean and crisp. It actually would have been more in keeping with the early 60s feel if the video had more dirt and grain to it, but I suppose that would be difficult to accomplish with a live feed.

The Audio
The audio is in Dolby Digital Stereo and it’s serviceable. The limitations of the live format are probably partly responsible for the underwhelming audio component, but it’s not really the type of movie that would have been able to do much with any sort of surround sound anyway.

The Extras
Given the message behind Fail Safe, this would have been a perfect DVD to load with extras. Sadly, the only thing we get is a preview for Ocean’s Thirteen.

The Inside Pulse
While having this movie broadcast live ended up being nothing more than a gimmick that actually ended up hurting the film, the core story here is a good one. If you’re a fan of Dr. Strangelove and would like to see a more serious take on the subject, than this is the movie for you. It’s a pity that they couldn’t have tossed a few extras on the disc though.

The DVD Lounge’s Ratings for Fail Safe
(OUT OF 10)