Fail Safe (2000)
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Fail Safe (2000)

On April 9, 2000 television history was made on the standard broadcast network CBS. Actually, perhaps it is more to say that history was recreated. Turning away from the decades of scripted television drama they returned to how TV worked when it was a nascent form of entertainment still relatively new to the American living room. The broadcast the cold war thriller, ‘Fail Safe’, live. Technically this was done twice that night; once for the East coast and three hours later for the West. I feeling old saying this but I remember Playhouse 90 some four decades ago. It was instrumental in cultivating my love for drama and film. The CBS network took a giant leap forward by making a step backward. They permitted George Clooney to present a live, black and white drama on prime time. Fail Safe was a major motion picture of the sixties. This was a time when the cold war was a very real thing. People had bomb shelters in their basements, school children (myself included) practiced measures to take should the nuclear bombs begin to fall. It was a time of fear, paranoia and distrust. The CBS presentation of Fail Safe returned us emotionally to that time. What they also did, something far more importantly, was to show that TV can be a real medium for talent, thought and emotion. For far too long TV has been almost devoid of meaning. With this broadcast the hay day of television was returned. To do this in black and white, mono sound and letterbox adds to the innovative presentation. This is not typical TV but it should not be so special. It is about time that quality such as this show demonstrates becomes more prevalent on broadcast TV.

The story is far more complex than the typical TV plot. There is a contest of wills between General Black (Harvey Keitel) a dove in the Pentagon, and think tank leader Prof Groteschele (Hank Azaria in a rare and excellently done dramatic performance) as the hawk ready to crush the Soviet Union. There is the worried President of the United States, Richard Dreyfuss, and his translator, Buck ( Noah Wyle), desperately trying to convince the Premier of the Soviet Union that the bombers on their way to destroy Moscow were only a mistake. Add to this mix such great actors as Don Cheadle, James Cromwell, Brian Dennehy and Norman Lloyd and you have a tour de force better by a long measure not only than any TV show but also most a very real sense it was only fitting that this trip back in time should feature this 1964 the classic film directed by one of the all-time greatest filmmakers ever, Sidney Lumet, was released. This was at the peak of the cold war when the greatest fear was Russian infiltration aimed at destroying our freedom and very way of life. This was the post Joseph McCarthy era when the residual fear stirred up by the infamous witch hunt for Communists lurking among us was far from quelled. The most frightening thing about this story is it wasn’t the Communist that was responsible; it was a simple electronic failure. The need to react quicker than our enemy drove the military to an over reliance on a burgeoning technology. ‘Fail Safe’ remains a cautionary tale about entrusting technology with decisions requiring human understanding.

Although the prevailing fear of Communist world domination is behind us and democracy prevailed, for the most part, the psychological intensity is timeless. When loyal Americans are ordered to tell their Soviet counterparts the weaknesses in our technology that would hand the enemy precisely how to shot down and kill their fellow Americans. A man holding back tears when giving the information was the ideal visual to depict a man torn between his oath to obey orders and his love of country. The two were always in perfect harmony but on this day a direct order from the Commander in Chief; forcing him to assist the Russians in doing what he devoted his life to prevent, killing Americans. The term ‘greater good’ is a placard sentiment overshadowed by the reality of an accidental, all out nuclear war. At that time the treat of burning the planet to a cinder was a very real sword of Damocles poised over our heads. The dichotomy between the professor urging an all-out preemptive strike to crush the Soviet Union once and for all and the General urging a peaceful solution was especially meaningful for those of us that lived back then. Traditionally those in Academia were the dove and the men in the military the hawks. This story reinforced the intensity of the themes explored here through role reversal.

Director Stephen Frears is excellent in this live production. Unable to do a single retake he must work the actors in rehearsals and make sure everything goes well the night of the broadcast. Unlike his movie Dangerous Liaisons he had to think on his feet to make sure that all the many components required pulling this off goes on without a hitch. His use of lighting, staging and tempo are master class. You are there. The camera becomes an extension of your own eyes and you have an intimate feeling for dread and concern. Frears demonstrates his mettle here more than most great directors. Ironically, the method of broadcasting brought back a simpler time when TV was mostly live. Unfortunately many of those incredible performances were literally once in a lifetime and are lost. What Mr. Clooney attempted in this experiment was to bring back, if only for a single night, the special excitement and energy that imbues a live performance. The original concept behind the various Playhouse productions was to bring the feeling of a live stage performance into the typical American home. Even back then many stage plays were beyond the financial or geographic reach of the working class.

All in all this was a mesmerizing experience. TV as I remembered from my youth. It was done with a class that is not seen on the shallow shores of television now. I hope that the CBS network realizes what a gem and visionary they have with Clooney and give him free reign to repeat this experience. Clooney may not have been the best Batman but he was instrumental to the return of high quality broadcast television. It is a shame that the networks never followed through with this concept. It would have introduced a new generation of viewers to the special, wonderful form of entertainment. The production was done true to the old school ways presented in Black and White with 4:3 Academy ratio, just like we watched on our old family Philco TV with the rabbit ear antenna.

Posted 05/17/2014

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