The 2000 version Fail Safe is only different from the Sidney Lumet version (1964) in that v2000 was a live television event where Mr. Lumet’s was a feature film.
There are four main areas for the story: a war room in Omaha that tracks bombers and fighters from both sides of the Cold War, a sort of intellectual war room in the Pentagon, and an office for the president to speak directly with the Soviet premier, and the bomber (captained by George Clooney). A congressman (Sam Elliott) and a computer contractor (James Cromwell) visit the war room in Omaha. They get a rundown of how the system works and how fail safe the system is. The pair is lucky enough to see bombers go after an unknown aircraft. Remember this part.
In the other war room a fanatic defense expert (Hank Azaria) from a think tank tries to convince those in attendance for his lecture on how capitalism will win over communism and that the Soviets are really little more than paper tigers. General Black (Harvey Keitel) stands toe to toe with the expert and vehemently explains that the expert isn’t just wrong but extremely dangerous. Remember this part.
Once the unknown aircraft is discovered to be a civilian plane off course, the bombers are ordered back to fail safe mode/position. One of them does not get this command and begins a journey to use nuclear bombs to take out their intended target, Moscow. The president (Richard Dreyfuss) comes in at this point and tries everything in his power to have the bombers stand down, including sending fighters on a mission to shoot the bombers down despite knowing that the fighters wouldn’t have enough fuel to get back.
The Pentagon war room sees what’s happening and an argument between the few hardcore hawks and the smaller hawks ensues. This is essentially intellectual where what happens in the other locations is deadly serious.
The president brings in a translator (Noah Wyle) and starts a dialog with the Soviet premier. It takes some time, but the president is able to convince the premier that the bombers coming toward Moscow are there by accident. The president then does two things to prove his sincerity. The first is that he opens a direct line of communication between the war room in Omaha and the Soviet command center (naturally this causes a good deal of confusion in Omaha, but the commander (Brian Dennehy) does what a good general does—he follows the order of the president). The second thing is that he explains that he scrambled one bomber with nuclear weapons whose target was New York City; if all attempts to return the planes or shoot them down fails and Moscow is hit, New York City would be sacrificed to even out the score.
All of this occurs while the men in the bomber believe their mission has been activated and make their way to Moscow. There is no argument here. They follow orders set down years earlier.
The film is in black and white. It is pretty obvious that it’s live because a few actors flub lines a little and have to recover—everyone does this well. The most striking thing about it is the lack of any background sound or music; this means that the tension in all venues is increased due to the fact that there is nothing to distract the viewer.
The main problem, though, is that Fail Safe is extremely dated. In 1998 Pakistan exploded its first nuclear device underground causing a serious situation; India then did the same thing to prove that Pakistan (with whom diplomacy is icy at the best of times) couldn’t be the bully on the block. Prior to this, it had been nearly ten years since the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union began its disintegration. While nuclear weapons will always pose a threat (more on this in a moment), this threat was less important in 2000 than other issues. Being the only superpower left, we kind of just stood down on the weapon issue. The 2000 version of Fail Safe offers no explanation for why it was important or even interesting (except as a bit of Cold War camp); it simply runs from beginning to end as if the audience was transported to 1964 along with the actors.
Potential plot spoilers, but I doubt they would spoil much
The second problem is one that also affected v1964. All but one character is not out of central casting but out of borderline casting. This is why I name only General Black (Blackie). This character bridges the gap from the intellectuals and the executives so he alone is allowed to have a third dimension. He is also the pilot of the bomber circling New York City.
This leads to the parts of the production that save it from the trash heap. The president orders the US ambassador in Moscow to the roof of the embassy; he also asks the Soviet representative to the UN into a similar position. The reason for this is confirmation. The president explains that if Moscow is hit, everyone involved in the call will hear a shrill sound of a melting telephone. Should that happen then he would order the bomber over NYC to unleash the same size and power bombs over midtown Manhattan. At that point, the group would hear the same sound from the UN representative.
This oddly brilliant and vicious compromise is complicated further because the first lady is in New York as is Blackie’s wife. The president kills his own wife by command and Blackie kills his wife and two children following the order—a sacrifice of Isaac where the dagger was not stayed but sliced into the boy’s heart.
Despite sounding like I hated it, I would recommend it, but with a couple of reservations. If you are under thirty, it is likely not going to make any sense unless you are a student of middle and late American history. If you are nearly forty (ugh) and were aware of the issues with regards to the Bomb then, despite how dated it is, you can still polish the tarnish off of it and maybe get something for your effort.
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