George Clooney's obsession with classic television is well documented. The son of a legendary Cincinnati news anchor, the star grew up around TV. As such, Clooney's two films as writer/director tackled important figures in broadcast history. Earlier, he pushed his bosses at "ER" to broadcast a live episode, hoping to recapture the feel of vintage teleplays. The episode was a success; soon other shows were also trying the gimmick.
More importantly, Clooney grew interested in a bold experiment: a modern day resurrection of the feature-length live teleplay format. In a tip of the hat to such dramatic showcases as "Playhouse 90," Clooney set out to bring the Eugene Burdick/Harvey Wheeler novel "Fail Safe" to the small screen. Heavily hyped as a major television "event" when it debuted in April 2000, the show - the first such program to air on CBS in 39 years - became a massive undertaking, simultaneously using two Warner Bros. soundstages, featuring a massive big-name cast, and, in its boldest move, the drama would be broadcast entirely in low-key black-and-white.
(Strangely, while the program's stark, flat "video" look suggested a raw, retro attitude, it was also broadcast in a letterbox format, suggesting a cinematic feel unobtainable in the very shows Clooney wished to imitate.)
"Fail Safe" had been brought to life before, in the chilling 1964 film directed by Sidney Lumet. It has been said that that film's public reception was dampened greatly by the arrival of "Dr. Strangelove," which tackled a nearly identical plot but with a darkly anarchic comic tone - effectively mocking the very points "Fail Safe" aimed to cover with grave seriousness. Despite Kubrickian comparisons that persist today, it is now seen by many as an effective and important political thriller.
The 2000 TV version is, for all intents and purposes, a straight remake; Walter Bernstein, who scripted the 1964 film, returned for writing duties for this second go-round. (The once blacklisted writer would also receive a producer credit, and to date this remains his final work.) The story is nearly identical, albeit toned down for the logistics of a live teleplay.
What we get in the 2000 version, with its stark monochrome look and warts-and-all live performance, is a somber immediacy that manages to heighten the tension in an already taut story. Directed by Stephen Frears (with live broadcast direction by Martin Pasetta, Jr.), this new "Fail Safe" crackles with the same docudrama intensity that Lumet managed decades earlier, maybe even more so. By stripping away the veneer of modern television and reducing the drama to its most essential elements, Frears creates a devastatingly real tone.
The story, for those unfamiliar with its earlier incarnations, presents a Cold War quandary. After a computer error leads a squadron of American bombers to nuke Moscow, the military is left scrambling to find a way around the fail-safe plans that would otherwise prevent the pilots from aborting their mission; meanwhile, the president must find a way to convince his Russian counterpart that this is not an act of war.
By maintaining the novel's original Cold War setting, the producers risk creating an immediately outdated work. And yet "Fail Safe" not only succeeds in reminding us of the anxiety of the nuclear age, yet manages to remain eerily relevant; the broadcast ends with a list of nations (as of its original air date) with full nuclear capability. While tensions have since shifted toward terrorism, state-sponsored nuclear threats still exist, and "Fail Safe" leaves us with a chill of history possibly repeating.
As with Lumet's film, Frears' broadcast presents this tale on a human level, reducing the story to a ground's-eye view. The sets may be impressively large, but they are the stages for more intimate episodes. The president is isolated in a bunker with a lone translator. The crew of the lead bomber is packed tight in its cockpit. Pentagon suits fuss over possible scenarios in a sparse debriefing room. Even the vast set of the war room, where generals bark orders, seems to grow smaller as the plot progresses, the camera moving away from the grandeur of the opening shots as the script focuses more on the personal angles.
"Fail Safe" is, then, an engrossing character work. All the action is contained within the performances - the occasional stock footage of fighter jets are nothing compared to the reaction shots of the actors. The cast is a stunning who's who list: Hank Azaria, Don Cheadle, Clooney, James Cromwell, Brian Dennehy, John Diehl, Richard Dreyfuss, Sam Elliott, Grant Heslov, Harvey Keitel, Norman Lloyd, Bill Smitrovich, Noah Wyle, and your host, Walter Cronkite. The performances are uniformly impressive, most notably Dreyfuss and Wyle, as the president and translator, and Azaria, as a disturbingly emotionless war analyst. With the cameras so close, we watch for the little character moments, small glances and tics, that breathe life into the proceedings.
The broadcast was a success, especially in its critical response, yet CBS has only attempted one more live feature since (a reworking of "On Golden Pond" starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer). It's a shame Clooney's vision of live drama returning to the airwaves never really got off the ground. Had the networks made the move to try more dynamic programming like "Fail Safe," who knows what the TV landscape might look like today?
Video & Audio
The retro black-and-white image looks stunning in this crisp widescreen (1.78:1) transfer. The only complaint is a lack of anamorphic enhancement, an oddity these days from a major studio. But then, the closing credits are presented in 1:33:1 full frame and the Regon 2 release suffered the same fate, suggesting that the program was shot in a flat letterbox and not in an HD format, so it gets a pass.
The soundtrack is a simple Dolby stereo; no subtitles are provided.
Sadly, nothing but a trailer for "Ocean's Thirteen."
Despite its star power and solid reputation, Warner Bros. has waited seven years before finally releasing "Fail Safe" on any home video format in North America. Now that it's here, fans are sure to be disappointed at the bare bones effort put into the release. The lack of extras is certainly frustrating, but the outstanding quality of the show itself makes this release Highly Recommended. This is one of the most notable television projects in recent memory, a powerful experiment that demands to be revisited.