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by Tony Lee editor of
Director: Stephen Frears
85 minutes (PG) 2000 Warner
review by Steven Hampton
This is a TV remake of 1964's antinuclear drama, produced in b&w for a live
broadcast in four acts, earlier this year in the United States. You should all know the
story. After a US strategic bomber mistakenly nukes Moscow, due to the failure of safety
procedures, the American president drops atomic weapons on New York to placate the
Russians and avert WWIII. Of course, it's ridiculous. Can't happen here now that Soviet
communism has collapsed. But the whole point of the tragedy in Fail Safe is that
the very existence of hydrogen bombs, and their attendant MAD (Mutually Assured
Destruction) strategies, makes this insane chain of events possible.
If the majority of the world's population were all intelligent, rational,
civilised and sensible, the catastrophe of Fail Safe would not be possible. But
we aren't and it is. Fail Safe tells a story, at least partly inspired by the
Cuban Missile Crisis, which should have changed the world for the better. Yet it didn't.
This new teleplay is sincere and worthy, and more recent military history (from the
Falklands, to Kosovo and the Gulf war) does nothing to diminish the chilling effect of
the tale. I know it's more usual to praise Kubrick's overly comedic adaptation of
similar material, but I think Dr Strangelove simply pokes fun at the MAD concept
instead of confronting it. Fail Safe, now as then, confronts the unthinkable in
an imaginative way, making it one of the most thought-provoking SF scenarios.
The cast is impressive. Richard Dreyfus plays the President, Noah Wyle his
interpreter for phone calls to USSR, Brian Dennehy the SAC general, George Clooney
(executive producer) is the American bomber pilot, Harvey Keitel is the USAF colonel
ordered to destroy Manhattan, James Cromwell the tiredly apologetic industrialist,
while Sam Elliott essays a US senator on a tour of the USAF command base. They all
acquit themselves well enough, but Keitel's military pacifist, both Dreyfus and Dennehy,
and surprisingly young Wyle (a regular on TV's ER) deserve special mention for
excellent performances. The docudrama style works perfectly, and a period setting
preserves the Cold War authenticity of the original film.
originally published online in VideoVista #18, September 2000 issue
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