Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) is a classic comedy about nuclear war and the incompetency of the government. Trust me when I say it’s a lot funnier than it sounds and most people consider it a classic for it. But if you’re wondering what Dr. Strangelove would look like as a serious movie, then Fail Safe is it. It has the same story, same types of characters, and was even released the exact same year. However, this film was released a little later than Dr. Strangelove was. Because that movie came out first audiences didn’t pay much attention to this movie. It tanked at the box office even though it was a critical success. So why am I talking about this version over the comedic one? Well, because it’s so much more intense and realistic. That’s not to say that Dr. Strangelove shouldn’t be ignored, but that film was a satire of the political climate at the time and was a welcome distraction from what was going on. This movie is more of the hard-crushing reality of what would happen if we entered into a nuclear war. Thus, this film has more of an impact because it hits you harder.
The film takes place during the Cold War. We are told about how the U.S. military uses fail safe boxes in bomber jets to instruct the piolets on where and when to attack if the U.S. is threatened. The military experts say this is an air-tight system. However, a malfunction in the system accidentally sends out the attack signal to several bomber jets. The governments of both the United States and Russia are able to stop most of them, except for one that is heading to Moscow. The President (Henry Fonda) now has to race against the clock to prevent a nuclear war by trying to get in touch with the bombers. But the problem is that once the attack is initiated, the bombers can’t stop their attack and can’t listen to anyone, not even the President.
This movie plays out more like a suspenseful thriller than a typical war movie. The entire plot of the film is a race against time as the government tries to stop one of their own bomber jets. The film builds tension by trying to find ways to stop this attack from happening. The government tries to stop them by sending jets to take them down, they ask the Russians for help by asking them to destroy the jet, and the President tries to call it off several times while dealing with trying to protect two countries. It’s very intense and keeps you on the edge of your seat. It helps that Sidney Lumet’s direction makes every scene tense. He instills a sense of realism in the direction, making the movie feel scarier. Many of the shots are close-ups to indicate a sense of dreed and claustrophobia. There’s not even a musical score so these scenes become more intense. It’s supposed to make you feel uncomfortable because the situation is so scary.
This sense of uneasiness if further intensified with the spectacular acting. Everyone does their part in making the story feel real as they take it very seriously. It’s a star-studded cast filled with stars and character actors that bring a sense of authenticity to it. Walter Matthau, Dan O’Henlihy, Frank Overton, Larry Hagman, and a smattering of other actors bring their A game. They all act as though they’re trying to prevent the world from getting destroyed, which they are within the story. But the star of the film is Fonda as the President. Fonda is one of the greatest actors of all time and has given many great performances like in The Ox-Bow Incident (1949), 12 Angry Men (1957), and The Grapes of Wrath (1940). His performance is a lot more subdued here. If another actor went too over-the-top then this character could have been poorly handled. But because Fonda is so subtle, he makes you afraid of what’s going to happen before it happens. The most intense scene in the film is when he has the chance to talk to one of the jet piolets. He tries his hardest to convince him that he’s the President and that he needs them to turn back. But because the piolet has been trained not to respond to anyone, their logic being that they could be lied to or tricked, he hangs up on him. His character is put in the worst possible situation and you feel worried for him every time he’s on that damn phone. In fact, you feel worried for most of the characters because they’re all in the same position.
So, this begs the question of which movie did this story better? Well the better question is what movie will stay with you longer? Dr. Strangelove tells the exact same story but from a comedic side. It paints all the characters like they are cartoons and makes fun of the political situation. Fail Safe does the complete opposite. It asks the very serious question of what would happen if this “fail safe” system failed. People believed back then, and even today, that such advanced technology couldn’t fail and that we would be safe. But, as history shows, our technology fails us because humans aren’t perfect. We build the machines, so they inherit our flaws. The movie shows us how unprepared we could be in this situation. And the films ending is one of the scariest endings because it feels too real. I won’t spoil it, but if you saw Dr. Strangelove’s ending, then imagine this films version to be deathly serious. It’s an ending that will make you question how safe you feel in a world with nuclear bombs. At any moment, something, no matter how small, can change the world for the worst. I think Fail Safe is the better of the two because it makes you think about your own mortality. It’s a film that scares you by showing how one slip-up could mean the end of the world. That’s some strong words to say about a movie, but this is probably one of the few movies I’ve ever seeen that will make you question life itself.