Fail Safe (1964) (Image courtesy of Criterion)

Sidney Lumet’s Atomic Bomb Thriller ‘Fail Safe’ and the (De)Evolution of Cold War Ethics

Directed by the master of claustrophobic tension Sidney Lumet, Fail Safe is one of the most gripping Atomic Bomb Era thrillers ever made and its message resonates to this day.

Fail Safe
Sidney Lumet
The Criterion Collection
28 January 2020

Had the atomic bomb turned out to be something as cheap and easily manufactured as a bicycle or an alarm clock, it might well have plunged us back into barbarism, but it might, on the other hand, have meant the end of national sovereignty and of the highly-centralised police state. If, as seems to be the case, it is a rare and costly object as difficult to produce as a battleship, it is likelier to put an end to large-scale wars at the cost of prolonging indefinitely a ‘peace that is no peace.'”

— George Orwell

Let us not be deceived—we are today in the midst of a cold war. Our enemies are to be found abroad and at home. Let us never forget this: our unrest is the heart of their success. The peace of the world is the hope and the goal of our political system. It is the despair and defeat of those who stand against us. We can depend only on ourselves.”

— Bernard Baruch

The etymology of the term “cold war” is long and relatively complex, but the phrase’s ultimate historical destination as the label for mid-20th century geopolitical aggressions between the USSR and key Western powers like the United States is overwhelmingly fixed to the legacies of two particular individuals: author George Orwell and multimillionaire investor and political advisor Bernard Baruch.

Orwell used the term in his 1945 essay “You and the Atomic Bomb“, in which he speculated about how the invention of nuclear weaponry would irrevocably alter power relations on a global and national scale by “robbing the exploited classes and peoples of all power to revolt.” He warned of the ways atomic capability could provoke and solidify a severe and dangerous power imbalance around the world, lamenting “the kind of world-view, the kind of beliefs, and the social structure that would probably prevail in a state which was at once unconquerable and in a permanent state of ‘cold war’ with its neighbours.”

Baruch, in a 1947 speech at a ceremony honoring him with a portrait in the South Carolina House of Representatives in which he also called for the tempering of labor union activity in the name of national unity, used the phrase “cold war” in direct reference to relations with the Soviet Union, saying that it was more important than ever to celebrate American identity, extricate our enemies, and unite under a spirit of nationalism and exceptionalism.

Orwell and Baruch’s differing perspectives on the then-burgeoning tensions with the USSR are emblematic of the transformations in the theory of war happening in the post-war world. In broad terms, political processes were taking the place of combat-focused military operations—economic sanctions, embargoes, and spy-craft in lieu of bombing campaigns and on-the-ground offensives—and with those changes, war became more political, more of a rhetorical exercise, and more of a debate between classes of intellectuals and politicians than a strategic deployment of military resources. In the modern era, advancements in drone technology and computer science have only intensified the shifts away from traditional warfare and toward more covert operations, moving us into a future in which nearly all matters of national security can be navigated in secret by politicians and faceless bureaucrats.

On the verge of this transition, Baruch stoked fear and animosity for the so-called enemy while claiming America had intentions of peace; two years earlier, Orwell warned of such a mentality, calling it a “peace that is no peace”. It was like a conversation, and the history of the Cold War is, more than anything else, a history of conversations, negotiations, and deliberations.

This is a substantial reason why Sidney Lumet’s 1964 thriller Fail Safe is one of the defining films of the Cold War period. It illustrates not just the material dangers of nuclear proliferation and cold warfare, but also the widespread psychological and philosophical shifts that took place following the Second World War. Based on a novel of the same name written by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, Fail Safe speculates about what might happen if all the governmental procedures were held together by fallible technological mechanisms and the most tenuous strands of administrative protocol—itself authored and enforced by a bureaucratic machine in endless cycles of authoritative flux—broke down in a way that hurled the world off the precipice of mutual destruction.

In the film, a series of miscalculations and mechanical errors mistakenly sends a directive to a group of airborne American bombers telling them to drop nuclear warheads on Moscow. By the time anyone realizes what happened, it’s already too late to recall the order. Across America’s military network, the President (Henry Fonda), a calculating, war-hungry professor (Walter Matthau), a pacifistic Brigadier General (Dan O’Herlihy), and a coalition of Pentagon leaders and Air Force officers argue with increasing desperation as the bombers inch ever closer to catastrophic global nuclear war. Released just a few years after the Cuban Missile Crisis—the height of Cold War anxiety over a potential atomic war—Fail Safe seems like a film conceived with great urgency and purpose, born out of a primal fear that the human capacity for mutual preservation might fail under the shadow of callous geopolitics and power games.

(Image courtesy of Criterion)
(Image courtesy of Criterion)

In the film’s opening scenes, each principal character is introduced individually before being pitted against each other in a rhetorical battle over theories of warfare. The Brigadier General, William “Blackie” Black, is shocked awake from a nightmare in which he watches a matador slay a bull; the political science professor, Professor Groeteschele, engages in a theoretical parlor discussion about nuclear war strategy at a party; an Air Force colonel (Fritz Weaver) and general (Frank Overton) show a congressman (Sorrell Booke) around a Nebraskan military base. Over time, they make their way into a concentrated sphere of power in their own secluded bunkers, and when the bombers go rogue toward the brink of nuclear devastation, they suddenly find themselves holding the fate of the world in the pages in their hands.

Like Lumet’s great courtroom drama 12 Angry Men (1957), his crime classic Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and his potent satire of media sensationalism Network (1976), Fail Safe is a stunningly claustrophobic, minimalist thriller that wrings every ounce of suspense out of the clashing personalities, biases, and moral senses of its characters. In its many scenes of verbal conflict—the President as a calm but decisive figurehead, Groeteschele as a maddeningly cold-blooded voice for war who engages with the realities of warfare intellectually, through philosophical lectures and thought experiments, but above all scientifically, through practical, statistical application, and Blackie as an empathetic but vulnerable voice of reason, arguing fruitlessly for a limited touch—the film raises many questions about how authority is concentrated among those at the top.

When Congressman Raskob is being shown around the covert Air Force base before the incident, he seems surprised by the uniquely sophisticated technology he sees on display. He asks the officers, “Who voted who the power to do it this particular way? I’m the only one around here got elected by anybody. Nobody gave me that power.” No one else in the film seems particularly concerned with that question, but then, they’re the ones pushing the buttons.

The film depicts the United States military as a government apparatus reliant on a complex bureaucratic machine, which includes countless people most will never know the names of: advisors, translators, military operatives, defense department officials, mechanical operators—each with their own personal and political biases and prejudices, their own capacity for reason and compassion. In a representative democracy, politicians must theoretically follow the will of the people or risk being voted out, but Fail Safe shows us hidden voices in the margins of government that are wholly unaccountable to the public they serve. Can they be trusted? Fail Safe persistently emphasizes the frailty of these chains of command by reaffirming, over and over again, how much room there is for a gear to fall out of place, either by mistake or malintent.

Larry Hagman as Buck and Henry Fonda as The President (Image courtesy of Criterion)
Larry Hagman as Buck and Henry Fonda as The President (Image courtesy of Criterion)

Fail Safe does not sensationalize, either. Such questions affect not just matters of war, but everyday administrational duties. Surviving in any society requires some level of communal faith in cooperation, reason, and empathy. We rely on someone outside of ourselves during every moment of our lives. Can we really trust others to make the right decisions for us, or for themselves? How do we define the “right” decision? Even if we can trust others, can we trust them not to make an honest mistake? What’s the alternative?

Fail Safe complicates the essential ethical concerns of the human community. Lumet is interested in how people operate under immense pressure, but more than that, he’s interested in how people operate under pressure within institutions much larger than themselves, and how that context can alter how much people are willing to compromise their ethical or moral judgment.

In a way, Lumet seems to frame every interaction between human beings—from the most miniscule and trivial passing to the most consequential of relationships—as a kind of arms race, as a series of both offensive and defensive measures designed to ensure cooperation and deter mutual destruction. On those terms, the film is fundamentally cynical. But at the same time, it’s also asking us to recognize common needs, embrace straightforward interpersonal communication, and do our best for others. Fittingly, the film ends on a radical exercise of trust that doubles as a monumental sacrifice. It’s telling us that society must function with some level of faith among its people. The goal, ostensibly, is to nurse that trust, but when each person is so uniquely flawed, is it even possible?

Maybe it doesn’t matter. As Orwell intimated, trust dies in a state of the Cold War. It’s a style of warfare that obfuscates the humanity of its victims through distance and calculation and obscures its bloody cost behind a facade of peace that is no peace. Under normal circumstances, it would be the obligation of this generation and those of the future to promote the values of cooperation and transparency before we let ourselves get torn apart. Of course, in the modern climate, it may be too late to heed the warnings already disregarded mere generations ago. The lessons of the Cold War go unlearned. Fail Safe contends with those lessons on an atomic level, and as such, it’s as essential as ever.

The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray release of Fail Safe includes a fair variety of special features: an audio commentary with Lumet recorded in 2000, a short interview-style documentary from the same year, a featurette with film critic J. Hoberman about Cold War-era cinema, and a unique foldable booklet featuring an essay by Bilge Ebiri. Given the lack of brand new supplemental material, the package is a little barebones by Criterion standards, but considering the film’s relatively minor stature in cinematic history (overshadowed as it so often is by Stanley Kubrick’s similarly conceived Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, released the same year), the presentation—aided by a new 4k restoration—is more than sufficient.