What makes a film a classic? Can a movie qualify as such, if it was both a box office failure on its release and still remains largely unknown? Surely yes, if its quality is such that it stands the test of time. Fail-Safe is such a candidate.

A radar alert at Strategic Air Command (SAC) triggers the precautionary deployment of nuclear armed US bombers, to their fail safe point. The source of the alert turns out to be a civilian aircraft which is off-course. However a system error (caused by faulty hardware being replaced) triggers a “Go!” signal, sending the bombers on an attack course to Moscow. There are only a few minutes to potentially cancel the attack. However, Russian jamming prevents communication between SAC and the bomber crews. Can total nuclear war be averted?

In a bunker beneath the White House, the President (Henry Fonda) aided by a Russian translator (Larry Hagman) communicates by telephone with (initially) advisors at the Pentagon and (subsequently) the Russian Premier. Among the advisors are two who act as the angel and devil on the President’s shoulders. General Black (Dan O’Herlihy) is an old college friend of the President and as military men go, a dove. He regards averting war as the priority. Professor Groeteschele (Walter Matthau) is a hawkish political scientist and game theorist, who believes in a winnable nuclear war.

After a slow (but measured) start, the film becomes a study in escalating claustrophobic tension. It’s beautifully shot in black and white, with strong lighting. Fonda is everything one could want in a US President, smart, dignified and radiating integrity. Fiction is (alas!) more reassuring than reality. Sydney Lumet directs effectively, renewing his partnership with Fonda from 12 Angry Men. At one point Fonda echoes his Juror 8 character, asking the Russian Premier, “Is it possible? Could it have happened?”

There is one incredibly lengthy two-shot of Fonda and Hagman, during the first call to the Russian Premier. As the tension escalates later in the film, the pace of editing increases dramatically, visually underscoring events.

Fail Safe is a product of its Cold War era. However, it is also about the relationship between humans and technology. A topic which has grown more relevant over time.

At one point, Groeteschele says of the Russians, “They’re not motivated by human emotions such as rage and pity. They are calculating machines. They will look at the balance sheet, and they will see they cannot win.” Ironically, he could almost be describing himself.

Computer systems can (and do) malfunction with (potentially) calamitous consequences. If you train humans using those systems to follow orders slavishly, becoming (in effect) biological computer programs, where lies the true fail safe point? The Boeing 737 Max tragedies are testimony to the results of a system where human pilots were subordinate to computer software. A far-fetched plot? In 1983, the Russian early warning system reported America had launched multiple ICBMs towards Russia. Stanislav Petrov, a Soviet Air Defence officer (correctly) judged the system reports to be errors. He did not (as trained) initiate a retaliatory strike. For his actions, he was neither rewarded nor punished.

History and circumstances (a lawsuit saw it released eight months after Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove) have been unkind to Fail-Safe. Posterity should be much more forgiving.

Available on Blu-ray from Mon 3 Feb 2020