' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Fail-Safe (1964)

Friday, June 16, 2017

Friday's Old Fashioned: Fail-Safe (1964)

Late in Sidney Lumet’s “Fail-Safe” (1964), long after the group of six American bomber planes have infiltrated Soviet airspace with the intention of dropping their payload on Moscow, not long after The President (Henry Fonda) has openly offered a self-inflicted retaliation against New York City to the Soviets as something like a peace offering to hopefully prevent Soviet retaliation and the genuine outbreak of WWIII, The President, sequestered in a bunker deep in the White House, leans back in his chair and remarks to his Russian Translator (Larry Hagman) about the weather. “Looked like rain earlier,” The President says. It’s a jarring moment, meteorological small talk as nuclear war threatens, and while it easily could have slipped into comedy, intentionally or unintentionally, Fonda doesn’t let it, playing a man not so much suddenly distracted as a man just deliberately looking for a little momentary distraction, to get his mind right by letting it settle on this one ordinary thing. It is a human moment and interjected into so much madness, and it is very important.

“Fail Safe” was released not long after Stanley Kubrick’s seminal “Dr. Strangelove”, which played nuclear holocaust for farce, albeit truthful farce and Fonda said that if he’d seen “Dr. Strangelove” prior to filming “Fail Safe” he wasn’t sure he could have played his own version of The President straight. It’s a good line, but I’m not sure I buy it. Not just because Fonda was a titan, mind you, but because of moments like Fonda’s President ruminating on the weather, remaining slightly yet monumentally human against all the doomsday odds. After all, the impetus for so much comical tragedy in “Dr. Strangelove” was a human losing his marbles and the escalating impossibility of other humans correcting that human’s misdeeds because all the other humans prove to be blithering, pompous idiots too.

“Fail Safe” yearns to maintain a human connection. You see this partly in the brief set-up, which takes time to introduce characters outside the Washington sphere, like the wife and children of Brigadier General Black (Dan O’Herlihy), though just as acutely, and much more strangely, in the half-liaison between national defense advisor Professor Groeteschele (Walter Matthau) and Ilsa Wolfe (Nancy Berg), some sort of abstract version of a socialite, who meet at what is apparently a pre-dawn cocktail party (which in its mere existence suggests some sort of beltway netherworld worthy of further exploration) where he is holding court and she watches, smoking, from afar.

Later, when Groeteschele goes to his car, Ilsa is embedded in the front seat, and a morning drive turns into something like nihilist erotica, where the thought of the annihilation of all living things seems to excite her, itself suggesting another alternate movie where Ilsa might make like Jeanne Moreau in “Elevator to the Gallows”, just wandering the District, a pensive pursuit beyond rationality, indifferent to the surrounding chaotic world. She is attracted to him because of his seemingly cavalier attitude toward the Cold War, but when she makes a move on him, he slaps her. He says “I’m not your kind”, which is not a sexist riposte, even if Matthau lets a sexism burble up from his character anyway, but an explication of how he is less aroused by war than conditioned to think rationally about it.

That rationality remains on display throughout, from the ground to the sky, where the bomber pilots infiltrating Soviet airspace, despite the palpable desperation in their eyes, know they are duty bound to forge ahead. The fail safes put in place by men are, in the end, too good to overcome, a nasty irony in which “Fail Safe” does not so much delight in as reluctantly, if frightfully, surrender to. The majority of people on screen here, while made to confront the error of their ways, are portrayed as fundamentally decent, which becomes the greatest tragedy of all. If “Dr. Strangelove” argued that if, left to idiots, we would incinerate ourselves then “Fail Safe” argues that even if we are left, mostly, to levelheaded thinkers we still might incinerate ourselves.

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