In an old-groundbreaking television event likely orchestrated by classic TV aficionado George Clooney, Fail Safe was presented live on CBS in 2000. Seven years later, it hits DVD with little fanfare, but it should grab the attention of fans of any or all of the following: classic TV, live theatre, all-star casts and military dramas.
I havenâ€™t seen the original film version based on the 1962 novel, Fail Safe, by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, or read the book, so I approached this live teleplay with an open mind. What stuck out most for me was the sheer depth of talent at work in this production.
The plot, which closely resembles Stanley Kubrickâ€™s dark comedy, Dr. Strangelove, involves a doomsday scenario during the cold war, in which a squadron of bombers is accidentally ordered to drop nukes on Moscow. Due to computerized automated security, the military and even the U.S. president is unable to order the bombers home â€“ the pilots have been ordered not to obey any verbal commands, as they could be faked by the enemy. When attempts to shoot down their own planes fail, the
U.S. contacts the Soviet Union to tell them the attack is the result of an accident, and to offer any and all assistance required to help the commies bring down the bombers.
Whereas Dr. Strangelove presents a similar scenario with twisted humour, Fail Safe comes across as deadly serious. With a top-notch ensemble cast that engages viewers in the high-stakes drama of potential world destruction, this teleplay works just as well for our contemporary world as the story would have during the cold war. The message here is no matter how sophisticated our technology becomes, there will always be an element of human error, that we are our own greatest enemy. In 2007, how close are we to a nuclear holocaust? How many checks and balances and fail-safes are in place to prevent North Korea, Russia,Iran or even the U.S. from destroying the world as we know it?
From a production standpoint, this was obviously a complicated undertaking. With multiple sets in different locations, varying camera angles and moving shots, and the ever-present pressure of the live broadcast, itâ€™s clear that Fail Safe had a lot of dedicated people behind the scenes.
As for a qualitative judgment, itâ€™s a tough call. While I appreciate the challenge of producing Fail Safe, and the obvious talent of most of its cast, the truth is I didnâ€™t thoroughly enjoy the film. It was interesting throughout, and at times intense, but something I canâ€™t quite put my finger on kept me from really buying into the doomsday scenario. Thatâ€™s not to say the film didnâ€™t stir questions in my mind, as explained above.
Iâ€™d call Fail Safe a teleplay/film you have to appreciate, even if you donâ€™t enjoy it. It presents important messages, and the live-broadcast gimmick automatically raises it above your average TV movie. The question is, since Clooneyâ€™s pet project hit the airwaves in 2000, why havenâ€™t we seen more of these live productions?
Presented in black and white, in 1.78:1 widescreen on a single disc, Fail Safe looks good. The picture is crisp, with excellent contrast and a clean transfer. While the overall presentation doesnâ€™t have a particularly broad dynamic range, with most of the sets being well-lit and shot with straightforward cinematography, itâ€™s still an appealing visual experience. Certainly, thereâ€™s nothing to complain about.
Sound is Dolby 2.0 Stereo, and itâ€™s pretty basic. Much of the film plays without an accompanying score, so itâ€™s all about the dialogue and a smattering of sound effects. These all sound clear, with a decent balance across the board.
There are no other audio options, and no subtitles are available.
Other than a trailer for Oceanâ€™s 13, there is no bonus material. Youâ€™d think that after seven years, the folks behind Fail Safe could have put together a more appealing package. At the very least, I would have liked to have a feature commentary by Clooney, Dreyfuss and a few others from the all-star cast.
If you missed Fail Safe live back in 2000, consider this disc for a rental. With a complete lack of extras, I canâ€™t recommend a purchase. Maybe in 2014, when they release a collectorâ€™s edition â€“ but donâ€™t hold your breath.