Fail Safe (1964)

Fail Safe (1964)

“In a nuclear war, everyone loses.”

When a group of U.S. bombers are accidentally sent to destroy Moscow, the president (Henry Fonda) enlists help from a translator (Larry Hagman) in reaching the Soviet Prime Minister and attempting to prevent a nuclear disaster.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Cold War
  • Henry Fonda Films
  • Nuclear Threat
  • Sidney Lumet Films
  • Walter Matthau Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary refers to this “very tense, grim drama, seriously directed by Sidney Lumet” — based on a 1962 novel of the same name by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler — as “Dr. Strangelove without the humor.” This story about “U.S. planes carrying nuclear bombs [who] are accidentally given the go-ahead to fly a bombing mission deep into Russia” “points out that there would be hawks in our government who’d insist that the U.S. should go through with a full-scale nuclear attack if such a mistake occurred rather than wait for the Russian retaliation.” What’s “most interesting is how we end up rooting for our own planes to be shot down, although the innocent men inside believe they’re just following orders.”

I was very pleasantly surprised to see how well this “serious counterpart” to Dr. Strangelove (both produced by Columbia Pictures) has stood up. Fonda effectively embodies the measured president we all wish we had; and Hagman is quietly nuanced in one of his earliest film roles. Meanwhile, Lumet’s direction (with support from George Hirschfeld as DP, Walter Bernstein’s script, and Ralph Rosenblum’s editing) is spot-on in terms of creating and maintaining tension across the various inter-connected spheres of the storyline (primarily the president’s office, the War Room, and the pilots’ cockpit).

This film is a literal nailbiter in terms of what will come next, with nothing less than the fate of our planet in the balance. You have every right to go into a viewing of it with trepidation — and come out feeling even more.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Henry Fonda as the President
  • Larry Hagman as Buck
  • George Hirschfeld’s cinematography
  • Walter Bernstein’s screenplay
  • Ralph Rosenblum’s editing

Must See?
Yes, as a powerful Cold War thriller.


  • Good Show


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