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Fail-Safe: Henry Fonda stars as Barack Obama

Fail-Safe: Henry Fonda stars as Barack Obama

By Jason McBride
April 05, 2009

Honestly, I don't think about nuclear war much anymore. The media has given me other threats to consider. I worry more about waking up in a shantytown under a freeway bridge or leaving a carbon footprint bigger than my neighbor's.

But nuclear weapons still exist. North Korea threatens to launch a missile every time Kim Jong-Il needs a better challenge than his browbeaten subjects. Global watchdogs inspect every rivet that goes into Iran's nuclear power plant. And of course, Russia still has its weapons from the Cold War … oh, wait, weren't there 32 warheads in that pile, not 29?

The nuclear question is still pertinent. At press time, President Obama is in Europe broaching disarmament, which leads me to ask if he watched this week's suggested rental, "Fail-Safe."

Released in 1964, Sidney Lumet's "Fail-Safe" was overshadowed by Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove." Both films deal with bilateral, US-USSR annihilation, but while Kubrick's take is satirical and slap-stick, "Fail-Safe" plays it straight, and gets pretty scary along the way.

"Fail-Safe" is a Pentagon procedural, complete with world maps on big screens, as in "Strangelove." An electronic glitch sends a clutch of US aircraft into the Soviet Union with an irreversible directive to drop nuclear bombs on Moscow. The president, played by Henry Fonda, has to make tough choices and employs feverish diplomacy to resolve the impossible crisis.

"Fail-Safe" (which was remade in 2000 starring George Clooney) takes it name from the electronic system that sends the planes into nuclear attack. It critiques the concept of infallible technology made to protect the populace from human error.

Walter Matthau, in well-done, non-comedic role, plays a hawkish political scientist who tries to convince top military chiefs that the glitch is an opportunity to rid the world of communism forever. It's a prescient casting choice, as Mathau's jowled face and bulbous head resemble then-future president Nixon.

But Fonda, as the unnamed president, will hear nothing of this. With the aid of interpreter Buck (played by a surprisingly meek Larry Hagman), Fonda pleads over the phone with the Russian premier to help put an end to the attack. When a group of US fighters fails to shoot down the bombers, the president orders the military to assist the Soviets in ending the attack.

Although Fonda starred in a slew of Westerns, I usually associate him with his role as the juror in "12 Angry Men" (1957) who employs reason to convince a biased jury to reevaluate its hasty consensus in a murder trial. As the president in "Fail-Safe," he employs a similar humanism, reminding me of, predictably, our current president. Obama's transparency-conscious tone is strikingly similar to Fonda’s soft-talking, win-win dialogue used to placate his Soviet counterpart.

In contrast to Matthau's cynicism, Fonda addresses the Russian with humanity: "If we don't trust each other right now, Mr. Chairman, there might not be another time."

But don't take my word for it. Years after making the film, director Lumet said, "Everybody in the United States would have voted for Henry Fonda for president if he had ever decided to run."

Released two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, "Fail-Safe" came at a time when Americans were beginning to openly question the arms race. Even more courageous, Columbia put its money behind a film written by Walter Bernstein, a screenwriter blacklisted during the 1950s HUAC hearings.

Aside from all that historical and political relevance stuff, "Fail-Safe" rivets us with its relentless, all-in-one-day pacing. But there's no escapism here. "Fail-Safe" stirs up a primal, genetically-encoded fear. There's something so black, so sobering, about watching human annihilation wrought by cold, mechanical error. Lumet captures the eeriness of this doom and throws it at us without mercy.