You know how everyone now is totally in love with Fail Safe and think it’s the most awesome nuclear war paranoia film ever made? Sorry, but I dislike it immensely. In fact, I think it’s quickly becoming one of the most overrated movies of all time.
I could’ve just kept my feelings to myself but I couldn’t. The reason why is that as I get older, I’ve been noticing an irksome trend. As younger generations rediscover the past, they’ve begun elevating mediocre movies to iconic status, sometimes at the expense of a far superior classic. For example, as I pointed out in a different entry, The Best Years of Our Lives, a 1940s classic, eventually became supplanted by the inferior It’s a Wonderful Life in the public consciousness as the best holiday movie of all time.
In the case of Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove, fanboys have gone on a campaign to boost the former film at the expense of the latter. One of their tactics is to create a mythos that Fail Safe is an underrated, underappreciated masterpiece that was cruelly forced into the shadows because of the diabolical machinations of Stanley Kubrick. As the story goes, if only the evil genius had left it alone, it would’ve been just as remembered and beloved as Dr. Strangelove. No, it would’ve been even more appreciated because it was the smarter, better film.
Puhlease. While it’s true that Kubrick did sue the studios to keep Fail Safe delayed from production until Dr. Strangelove was released, this in no way, shape or form explains why that movie never became a classic. The movie may have been stocked with amazing veterans and directed by a cinematic legend. But it was the worst kind of poorly written, intellectually insulting, alarmist, manipulative pap, whereas Dr. Strangelove was the total opposite, a well-crafted, thought provoking movie that didn’t insult the audience one bit.
And if you think this is just the jaded perspective of some millennial or GenX hipster, you couldn’t be more wrong. Fail Safe was both a critical and commercial bomb for the very reasons I mentioned. The script was so full of holes, inaccuracies and unrealistic behavior that, according to one reviewer, Sidney Hook, it was “intellectually scandalous.” Even positive critics had to concede that parts of the movie, because they were so inaccurate, unrealistic and illogical, stretched credulity to its limits.
Just what was is it about Fail Safe that had people rolling their eyes with derision while praising Dr. Strangelove for the masterpiece that it is?
Dr. Strangelove’s Situation was Plausible; Fail Safe’s Scenario was Not
One of the biggest ironies about Dr. Strangelove is that even though it was a broad slapstick comedy with wacky characters and people saying and doing the stupidest things, it presented a completely plausible scenario.
How? Well, let’s really think about what happens in Dr. Strangelove. If you strip out the superficial comedic elements, you will find that the actual events that wind up leading to WW3 could very well have happened under the right conditions. Forget the whole comedic justification for why Jack D. Ripper decides to set off nuclear war (his paranoid delusions about “bodily fluids”). The reason why WW3 accidentally happens in Dr. Strangelove is that the US military designed a set of safety protocols that on the surface looked fool proof, but had become so convoluted that a loose cannon was able to slip through the cracks and set off a comedy of errors that led to nuclear war.
Of course, in real life, a paranoid schizophrenic with sexual dysfunctional issues would never in a million years start WW3. But could an incompetent person or mentally unstable person in command somehow set in motion a series of events that accidentally lead to nuclear war if the protocols preventing such a thing from happening were badly flawed? Of course. It happens all the time. It was this type of thing that happened at Chernobyl. It didn’t take a crazy lunatic with bizarre paranoid delusions about ejaculation to deliberately cause that disaster. All it took was a few slip ups by incompetent workers and a flawed set of protocols that kept everyone from correcting the problem before it became too late.
In Fail Safe, there’s nothing realistic about the scenario presented at all. Literally, it boils down to this: a minor electronic glitch causes a message to be sent to a squadron of bombers to nuke Moscow. When the president calls the last bomber in–even so far as calling his wife on the line– the bomber refuses because he thinks that it’s all a trick. The President of the United States then decides he has to bomb New York City to prevent full-scale nuclear war.
When you watch the movie, it becomes easy, due to the misdirection, to buy into the premise that A led to B leading to C leading to D until it became inevitable for NYC to be nuked. But the sequence of events in Fail Safe are complete random and have no connectivity whatsoever. There’s no logical reason why a minor electronic glitch would have led to bombers being sent an erroneous order to nuke Moscow other than you’re told that this is the case. There’s no reason why the last bomber wouldn’t believe the President and his wife that he had been sent the launch codes. There’s no reason why NYC had to be nuked as a response.
With Dr. Strangelove, we have a string of what looks like seemingly random incidents taking place that lead to WW3, but there’s an actual logic to why they happen and cause the next set of events to occur. For example, when Lionel Mandrake can’t get the code he needs from Ripper to reverse the bombing order, the US military decides to shoot down the bombers heading towards the USSR. Unfortunately, not only does it fail to down the last bomber, it winds up destroying that plane’s control panel. So, when Mandrake finally gets the code, that plane is unable to receive it because of its damaged controls.
Every step of the way, there was a logic to the chain of events that lead to WW3 in Dr. Strangelove. In Fail Safe, it’s the other way around–we get a string of totally random events that are given the appearance of forming a logical chain of events that inevitably lead to the destruction of NYC.
Dr. Strangelove Had Something Constructive to Say
If you were alive at any time during the Cold War, you practically had it beaten into you that nukes were the most destructive weapons in the history of mankind and that full-scale nuclear war was the worst thing that could ever happen. This feeling was especially true in the early 1960s when tensions between the USSR and American reached their peak.
So writing a movie to warn everyone about how scary and evil nukes were was pretty stupid and pointless. It went without saying that they were scary. Besides, during the Cold War, there wasn’t really much anyone could do about them, anyway. Both the US and the USSR were fully determined to keep them no matter what anyone said or did. So creating a movie with the sole purpose of trying to scare the military into disarming was a pointless and futile exercise. All that would’ve done was make the military-industrial complex double down on the propaganda and Cold War rhetoric justifying its necessity for nukes.
The screenwriters of Dr. Strangelove were clever enough to realize how stubborn the powers that be were going to be regarding nukes. They also realized that it was also pointless to remind the public of the obvious, that nukes were bad. So they basically went, “Look, nukes are here to stay. They’re not going anywhere no matter what. But you know what? There’s something we can do to prevent the worst from happening. If these maniacs are going to insist on having nuclear weapons at any cost, let’s at least make them more conscientious in how they are used.”
The first thing the movie did was alert the military to not take protocols for granted. In other words, it said, “You want to own nukes? Go right ahead. But you’d pretty make better damn sure that you carefully think through your protocols so that no one could accidentally set off nukes.” At the time, the US military was very adamant that nothing in Dr. Strangelove could’ve taken place. But you can bet your bottom dollar that in the wake of that film, the top brass probably took a second, third and fourth look at its protocols to make sure that nothing like this could happen.
The second thing that Dr. Strangelove did was address the issue of nuclear proliferation. At the time the movie was made, the US kept building an insane number of nukes in a bid to outdo the Soviet Union, even more than needed to win any war. Dr. Strangelove said it was all nice and good that the military wanted to build all of these nukes, but there was a danger that having so many of them could potentially turn into a Sorcerer’s Apprentice type situation. In other words, the development and spread of nukes could become so large and unwieldy that it could outpace the military and even the government’s ability to actually keep tabs on them.
This is the problem that causes things to spin out of control in Dr. Strangelove. Technically, it was completely within President Muffley’s and military command to fix the crisis started by Jack D. Ripper. All they had to do was send out a simple order to their bombers to call them back. Easy peasy. But because the protocols had become so convoluted and the ability to keep tabs on everyone and every nuke so difficult, the crisis snowballed to the point where it was too late for anyone to do anything about it. Again, the US military in the 1960s may have put on a brave front that it had everything under control, but it’s very likely that everyone took Dr. Strangelove’s message to heart.
Fail Safe’s had nothing constructive to say. Literally, its entire message was, “Nukes are bad; be very, very afraid of them. Feel helpless against them.” That was all. The point was to be alarmist, to frighten the public to death about how evil nukes were. To what end? None whatsoever.
Dr. Strangelove’s Characters Were Realistic
It might seem absurd to claim that Dr. Strangelove’s characters were realistic compared to the characters of Fail Safe. But if you forget the zany characterizations and one liners, you will see that the characters in that film had more realistic reactions to their situation than the ones in Fail Safe.
As an example, let’s compare and contrast two scenes involving Major Kong of Dr. Strangelove and Colonel Grady of Fail Safe to show what I mean.
It goes without saying that Major Kong is a complete and total goofball, the kind who would hop on top of a falling nuke and ride it like a bronco to his death. However, when he is first told by his subordinates to nuke Russia, his first reaction isn’t to mindlessly accept the order. He refuses to believe it. In fact, he even insults them for a long time before he decides to double check for himself whether the codes are correct or not.
This is a perfectly normal, human reaction that anyone would’ve had in that situation. First of all, the directive was coming out of left field. As far as Kong knew, there were no known tensions at the time that would lead to this type of drastic decision. Also, because ordering a nuclear strike was such a momentous decision, Kong was naturally hesitant to second guess the order. He even says as much that there must be some mistake and has everyone double check the codes for good measure.
Now let’s look at that long, drawn out sequence from Fail Safe in which The President tries to convince Colonel Grady that there’s been a mistake and that he’s supposed to turn back. In this scene, The President and both Grady’s wife are on a communications line begging him to realize that his order to nuke Moscow is a mistake. However, no matter what they say, he absolutely refuses.
Keep in mind–it’s The President on special line of communication that only a few select members of the government and military have access to. Any sane, rational adult would think, “The President of the United States is talking to me on a special line only accessible to military command. Not only that, the President took the trouble to have my wife brought in to also speak to me on this very special line. Maybe this is all just a mistake after all.”
That’s what any rational person would think. But in Fail Safe, no–Grady adamantly has decided that this is “all a trick.” According to him, the Russians invaded the White House and Pentagon, took over this very secret line only accessible to military top brass, tracked down who he was, kidnapped his wife and ordered her under duress to lie to him about having been sent a directive by mistake. Or, perhaps, got an impostor to imitate her and The President’s voices.
This is such an idiotic conclusion to be drawn, the type you’d expect of someone who has a very naive, stupid and childish view of how a Russian invasion could take place. If Grady had been a civilian whose only knowledge of war games was what he got out of pulp novels and comic books, his reaction would make sense. But he wasn’t a civilian. He was a trained member of the US military–and a colonel, no less. He is the last person on earth who would’ve believed something this stupid. So his reaction was completely unrealistic, given his military background.
If you look at other characters in Fail Safe, you will see that many of them act in this way. Why? Because they were little more than plot devices made to react in a way needed to advance the script. In the case of Grady, it was absolutely essential for him to act like an idiot when he was called by the President; without that reaction, he would’ve never dropped the nuke, which in turn led to the strike order on NYC.
Fail Safe is Intellectually Insulting
Nothing draws my ire with a film more than when it treats the audience members like idiots, and Fail Safe does it in spades. Do not believe for a second that because it’s filmed in such a dour way that it’s a thought-provoking film that respects its audience. It doesn’t. In fact, it’s one of the most intellectually insulting films I’ve ever seen, because of its brazen use of emotional and mental manipulation.
One of the biggest intellectually insulting sins it commits is presenting what’s known as the “false dilemma.” This is a type of manipulative argument in which you give the false impression that there are only two extreme options in dealing with a particular situation. In other words, it’s “do or die.” Either you do Option A and everyone lives, or do Option B, in which case, everyone dies.
In Fail Safe, we are told that because the US is about to accidentally nuke Moscow, the President has no choice but to nuke an American city to stave off WW3. On the surface, this dilemma seems based in reality. The reason is that for the longest time, there was the assumption during the Cold War that if either Russia or the United States was the first to launch a nuclear strike, the other country would have to strike back, which in turn would lead to full-scale global nuclear war.
The thing is, though, is that this particular scenario was specifically about preemptive nuclear strikes–in other words, a scenario in which either country deliberately set out to hit the other one first in an act of war.
In Fail Safe, we weren’t dealing with a preemptive nuclear strike, but an accident–one that even officials in Moscow acknowledged. So why would the US nuking its own city have been the only option on the table to stop full-scale nuclear war? Especially when it was clear that the Russians accepted that an accident had occurred? Couldn’t the US have negotiated some kind of deal with the USSR after the bomb hit to allay tensions and reassure its leaders that it had been an accident? Couldn’t the US have maybe left it up to the Russians to decide what to do? In other words, put the ball in their court?
Of course. Just because full-scale nuclear war was the inevitable outcome of either country deliberately being the first one to drop a bomb on the other didn’t also mean that mutual destruction was the guaranteed outcome if the bomb had been dropped the first by accident. That’s especially true if the Russians themselves understood this to be the case. But the movie deliberately conflated the two issues to make audiences think that either The President had to nuke NYC or allow full-scale nuclear war to happen.
Another example of Fail Safe insulting the audience’s intelligence is what it does to counter its misgivings about The President’s decision to nuke NYC. Why would the audience have had misgivings? Not just for sentimental reasons. Set aside, for the moment, the sheer insanity of even considering nuking any American city. NYC was (and still is) the most populated city in the country, so nuking it would’ve resulted in a far more number of casualties than if The President had chosen a different city.
To make matters worse, NYC is the home of the UN. Besides destroying a symbol of international peace, it is home to a large number of foreign diplomats and delegates. So in nuking NYC, The President wouldn’t have just been killing American citizens but foreign nationals as well, all of them important dignitaries. This would’ve sparked international outrage all over the world.
Knowing full well that everyone watching Film Safe would’ve rejected The President’s decision to pick NYC as the target of the bombing for these reasons, the writers did something very clever. They had the movie’s villain, Groeteschele (played by Walter Matthau) be the one to raise the biggest objection about NYC. Why? Because by having the sociopathic war hawk declare that NYC shouldn’t be nuked, this would manipulate naysayers into reconsidering their objections based on the fallacy that an idea must be wrong if someone of questionable morality believes in it or wants it for the wrong reasons.
The tactic was so brilliant that you can see a reviewer at the IMDB falling for it hook, line and sinker. In his review, you can read him sniffing about how Groeteschele’s objection about nuking NYC was a classic case of someone valuing “business over humans.”
But does this make sense, though? Groeteschele may have been a soulless, morally bankrupt douche bag but why does it matter considering he was asking for NYC to be off the table? NYC, I reiterate, was the most populated city in the United States. It was also the HQ of the UN. Suggesting that The President should strike another city other than NYC would’ve reduced the casualty count of a nuclear strike by at least half and prevented international outrage from the countries whose delegates would’ve been killed in the bombing. Yet he was seen by the IMDB reviewer as a ghoul who doesn’t place any value on human life while The President, who was determined to pick the most populated city guaranteed to cause the most casualties, was seen as placing a greater value on human life than Groeteschele.
Yet another intellectually insulting thing Fail Safe does involves the scene I mentioned previously in which Colonel Grady refuses to believe The President or his wife that being ordered to bomb the USSR was a mistake. There is no way, no how that a trained military professional would ever be so unsophisticated as to really believe that the Russians could’ve either had impostors on the line “tricking him” or somehow kidnapped both The President and his wife and forced them to lie to him.
However, this is something that a really, really dumb non-military person who gets his ideas from comic books and cheesy spy dramas might believe, and it’s this fact that the writers exploited in the hopes of selling Colonel Grady’s completely unrealistic and implausible reaction as “understandable.” In other words, they were hoping that if you were stupid enough to think that the Russians could invade the White House and pull a “trick” on him, you would “buy” his reaction.
The last intellectually insulting thing Fail Safe does is conveniently have the First Lady be in NYC at the time of the crisis. Why? So that The President’s insane decision to nuke it becomes seen as a noble act of sacrifice, as in, “Yes, it’s horrible that New Yorkers were forced to sacrifice their lives, but look! The President decided to sacrifice someone near and dear to him, too!”
Why so much intellectually insulting nonsense? Well, not only was The President’s decision to nuke NYC just plain crazy, the conditions leading up to that decision was completely contrived and unrealistic. To make the movie seem not so contrived, crazy or unrealistic, the writers came up with these cheap gimmicks to manipulate the audience into feeling that the movie was a lot more logical than it was, and also to see the President’s decision as being much wiser and more rational than it actually was.
In stark contrast to Fail Safe, in Dr. Strangelove, there was not one moment where the audience was manipulated, not one intellectually insulting tactic to get the story to work. That’s because it worked on its own.
Fail Safe’s One-Dimensional Portrayal of Military Personnel
Once again, there is an irony in Dr. Strangelove in that it was the more respectful of military personnel out of both films, even though some of the characters were portrayed as buffoonish or wacky.
You see, Dr. Strangelove wasn’t making fun of the military itself, but of three specific things–the military-industrial complex, war hawks like General Turgidson and the US’s recent recruitment of Nazi scientists from WW2 to help develop its weaponry. But military personnel itself was not ridiculed.
In Fail Safe, it may look like the military is being portrayed as dignified and stoic, but they’re really being portrayed as weak-minded, weak-willed programmed automatons who just do whatever they’re told regardless. Unlike Kong and his subordinates from Dr. Strangelove, the bombers from Fail Safe don’t really go out of their way to second guess the order. They just accept it, like unthinking robots. Colonel Grady is just as bad; he’s basically a mindless android who can’t mentally deviate from something he had been told in training. As far as he’s concerned, he doesn’t care if all signs point to the fact that he’s not being tricked at all. He doesn’t even consider the possibility. Like a robot, he sticks to the script.
Colonel Black just dutifully carries out this bombing of New York City without any objections whatsoever, doesn’t even question what he’s being asked to do. He just does it because he’s a good, little programmed robot, even though he knows and fully understands the implications of the horrible act he’s being asked to commit.
Part of the reason why the military acts like this in Fail Safe is, going back to what I said earlier, that all the characters were little more than plot devices needing to behave in a way necessary to advance the plot. But it might have also been a cynical attempt to make military personnel look like obedient drones unable to think for themselves, to such an extent that they would obey an order that even went against their own principles. Not very nuanced for what’s supposed to be a “thoughtful”, serious film.
Fail Safe Exploits Henry Fonda’s Onscreen Persona as Crutch
Because Dr. Strangelove was such a solidly written, intelligent story, it didn’t need to rely on any crutches to sell its premise. Fail Safe, on the other hand, was so poorly written that it had to resort to various crutches to sell itself. Besides emotional manipulation and presenting false dilemmas, the biggest crutch of all was relying on Henry Fonda’s onscreen persona to sell The President’s irrational decision to nuke NYC as rational and wise.
In case you don’t know what I mean about relying on his onscreen persona, Henry Fonda was the Morgan Freeman of his generation. He was an actor who had the type of screen presence that exuded an age old wisdom and humanity bordering on the divine.
In Fail Safe, The President’s decision to nuke NYC is absolutely insane and unethical. There’s no logical basis to it, and ordinarily, most people watching the movie would’ve immediately rejected the idea. However, the reason why so many people didn’t is that the movie did such a good job playing up and exploiting Fonda’s persona that they wound up feeling that The President’s decision was not only wise but humane.
If you don’t believe me, imagine another capable actor in that role with the same exact lines, and it becomes much harder to accept The President’s decision. Imagine, say, someone like George C. Scott playing that character. The President’s decision would’ve felt a lot more cold-blooded and calculating than with Fonda in the role. But with Fonda as The President, there’s a sense that this decision is coming from a sage whose wisdom is above question.
Dr. Strangelove Will Always Be the Better Film
I would never begrudge anyone’s enjoyment of Fail Safe. Not only is it a well-directed film, we like what we like. But I’ll be damned if it suffers the same fate as The Best Years of Our Lives. Love the movie for its direction, appreciate it because it’s a Sidney Lumet movie, respect it for its subject matter. But don’t, for the love of Mike, try to kick up this b.s. mythology that it was a better, more intellectual film than Dr. Strangelove, and would’ve been loved had it not been for Kubrick. That wasn’t true when critics and audiences snubbed it in 1965. It’s not true in 2017, and will never be true no matter how many people try to convince everyone otherwise. Dr. Strangelove is a masterpiece. Fail Safe is not. Finito, end of story, good night.