Computer error sends a flight of bombers to attack the USSR. The President tries to avert all-out nuclear war, and is forced to make a great sacrifice to save the world.
Overlooked in 1964 because it played straight the nightmare scenario which had just been turned into comedy by Stanley Kubrick in Dr Strangelove, this adaptation of the Eugene Burdick/Harvey Wheeler best-seller is still an impressive and disturbing brink-of-doom thriller.
Inevitably, Fail-Safe rings less true than Strangelove by insisting on a dignified, humane, liberal response to a situation that more aptly produces horror, hysteria and biting misanthropy, but Sidney Lumet has a knack of wringing suspense from scenes in which men in suits or uniforms sit or stand around indoors exchanging pointed dialogue. Fonda is the ideal image of what a US President should be like, and a large supporting cast includes pointed turns from Walter Matthau as a Strangelovian doomsday theorist ('these are not normal people, these are Marxist fanatics') and future funnyman Dom DeLuise as the technician heartbroken at being ordered to share vital information with the Soviets.
The (understandable) withholding of US defence department co-operation means that minimal amounts of stock-footage had to be processed, used in repeated shots or even negative, to convey the far-off front line where the war is close to breaking out.
It’s technically very innovative: General Dan O'Herlihy's Sarah Connor-like holocaust dreams and the minimalist destructions of major cities (unforgettably conveyed by the whine heard on the hot line when the telephone at the other end disintegrates) seem the sort of bold strokes you’d expect from a contemporary cutting edge director rather than a major 1960s motion picture. Remade interestingly as a live TV drama by Stephen Frears in 2000, with Harvey Keitel, George Clooney and Richard Dreyfuss.
A minor, non-funny Dr Strangelove.