Fail Safe [2000]

Director: Stephen Frears
Stars: Richard Dreyfuss, Noah Wyle, Brian Dennehy, Sam Elliott, James Cromwell
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Runtime: 84 minutes

It's Dr. Strangelove, but without the laughs. Fail Safe, made within a year of Strangelove and at the height of cold war atomic anxiety, posits a similar nightmare scenario. A U.S. bomber is accidentally ordered toward Moscow, ready to drop its load. The U.S. president (Henry Fonda) and various military and congressional leaders must then scramble to deal with the disaster. The built-in suspense is well maintained by director Sidney Lumet, working from a script by former blacklisted writer Walter Bernstein. The solemn, serious approach doesn't begin to touch the brilliance of Strangelove's inspired take on the nuclear nightmare, but Fail Safe is absorbing and well acted (a memorable role for Walter Matthau, for instance). The movie enters unexpected territory in its final minutes; conditioned for feel-good endings, viewers are still genuinely shocked by the plot turns in the final reels. The climax comes as a sobering slap in the face, intriguingly staged by Lumet. Now that the cold war has passed on into history, Fail Safe stands as--thank goodness--an interesting period piece. --Robert Horton

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