Sight and Sound - 10/01/2000
"...[Frears] makes a sterling job of reviving the original film's taut, monochrome claustrophobia. A compelling exercise in human drama..."
Description by OLDIES.com:
One of the greatest anti-war thrillers ever, Fail-Safe stars Henry Fonday, Walter Matthau, Dan O'Herlihy, Larry Hagman and Fritz Weaver (in his film debut) as a group of military men on the verge of World War III. When a military computer error deploys a squadron of SAC bombers to destroy Moscow, the American President (Fonda) tries to call them back. But their sophisticated fail-safe system prevents him from aborting the attack, so he must convince the Soviets not to retaliate. In desperation, the President offers to sacrifice an American city if his pilots succeed in their deadly mission over Moscow. A four-star techno-thriller that builds tension and suspense with every tick of the nuclear clock.
Following closely on the heels of Stanley Kubrik's DR. STRANGELOVE (all too closely for Kubrick and company, who quickly filed a lawsuit alleging plagiarism), Sidney Lumet's FAIL-SAFE employs a similarly stylized and heightened dramatic structure in its nerve-crushing moral tale. Taking place over the course of a single day, the film follows government and army officials in Nebraska, New York City, and Washington, D.C., as they go about their day supervising, examining, and speculating on the fragile state of affairs engendered by the tense nuclear standoff between the U.S. and Russia. When an off-course commercial airplane triggers the Pentagon's complex "fail-safe" maneuver, leaving an arsenal of nuclear-bomb-carrying jet fighters at the ready, a mechanical error puts the entire world in danger of destruction. Riveting performances from a rich cast are pushed even further by Lumet's stark and ominous direction. Walter Matthau gives an uncharacteristic turn as a cold and contemptuous political scientist unswerving in his convictions that the U.S. must stand strong against the communist menace. Henry Fonda plays the American president who must navigate the complex and urgent political trauma and prevent total destruction, even at an unthinkable price.
Shown at the second New York Film Festival on September 15, 1964.
The film's premise closely resembled that of DR. STRANGELOVE, which had been released in January of 1964. Columbia Pictures and others involved in the making of the earlier film found out about the novel FAIL-SAFE and filed a federal court suit against the authors, the book's publishers, and independent production company ECA, which was planning to make the movie version. The makers of STRANGELOVE charged that the writers, Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, had plagiarized the book on which STRANGELOVE was based. But this entire situation was resolved when Columbia received distribution rights for FAIL-SAFE and ECA dissolved. ECA producer Max Youngstein went on to produce FAIL-SAFE for Columbia.
The film was remade as a live television movie in 2000, directed by Stephen Frears and starring George Clooney, Richard Dreyfuss, Harvey Keitel, Brian Dennehy, and Don Cheadle.