Pick of the Week
This week’s recommendation for a classic conspiracy or political-paranoia movie is Fail Safe, a dire 1964 thriller with an apocalyptic angle. If you’re interested in how political paranoia can play out on screen, it’s must-see material.
Fail Safe is probably one of director Sidney Lumet’s less well-known films, but maybe that is not so surprising. After all, he had an astonishing output that includes dozens of titles, including Network, Serpico (which is a conspiracy film in its own right), Dog Day Afternoon, and Twelve Angry Men. The list goes on and on. Yet, while it may not be as famous, Fail Safe is a film well worth watching. Although it is steeped in the fears and anxieties of the Cold War at its height, I think it has a lot to say about political climates in any era that are prone to jumping to conclusions and acting before thinking.
Without giving away any spoilers, the set-up of Fail Safe is compelling in its own right. The basic story starts with the premise of a nation relying on super-computers to manage lethal air defense systems and what would happen if those super-computers drew erroneous conclusions. As you might imagine, in a world where nuclear war could start with the simple push of a button (even if that is not literally the case), getting things wrong can lead to deadly consequences. The genius of Fail Safe is not the part of the story that says just that, though. Instead, it’s about how, or even if, it would be possible to undo really bad actions once they have been put into motion.
Much about Fail Safe is reflective of the geopolitics of the 1960s. Arriving in theaters just two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis (and just months after the national trauma of John Kennedy’s assassination), this film tries to take a cold, hard look at the kind of world humans had gotten themselves into at that time. It is not a particularly optimistic movie, to say the least, but it’s a shrewd analysis of what happens when we don’t think things through or create systems that don’t allow us to think things through.
The acting is to-the-point and effective in this one. Led by Henry Fonda and Walter Matthau, the cast also includes Larry Hagman and even Dom DeLuise, two of my personal favorites, in roles well suited for them. Meanwhile, the efficient direction keeps a complicated story easy to follow. Bold lighting choices and unusual camera angles add to the unsettling mood of the story.
Fail Safe is definitely a movie if its time, but it’s also a film that still has a lot to say.