Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove

Both these are movies from the Cold War era, when there were two nuclear super powers battling for world hegemony.

I have been wanting to see these movies for quite some time, but never had a chance to do so till now. I first saw “Fail Safe”, directed by the famous Sidney Lumet. It is a cold war nuclear thriller, which depicts in a tense drama, how manual or mechanical errors could lead to a nuclear holocaust. The world may, or may not have come to such thresholds of nuclear war over the past six decades, but the realism of the movie is commendable. Anyone seeing this movie would come to the conclusion that errors are indeed possible and start contemplating the potential misuse of nuclear weapons. Fail Safe is a good movie which demonstrates the tension that builds up after the error was discovered, and all of that happens in closed spaces like the situation rooms at the White House or the Pentagon. The civility of the exchanges is spoiled when one of the staffers at the Strategic Air Command hits the General of the Command and tries to take the matter into his hands, going against the orders of the President of the United States. Such actions are believable, given the context of the early part of the Cold War, when people were generally apprehensive of the so-called Evil Soviet Empire, and may not see reason to collaborate with the Soviets.

I liked Fail Safe more than Dr. Strangelove.

Both movies are similar in building tension over a similar storyline, but Dr. Strangelove is not believable at all. It has comic characters, making fun of nuclear warfare. It has a not-so-good President of the United States, and a very funny Chief of General Staff. It also has a rogue general of the Strategic Air Command who wants to fight the Soviet Union on his own, and so seizes command over nuclear bombers which he orders to proceed towards an attack on the Soviet Union. While it might be a bit hilarious to watch, the viewers would lose the seriousness of the extremely serious matter being faced by the United States. It was not the fault of the Soviet Union according to this movie, and the U.S. President belabours to convince the Soviet Premier to launch a missile attack on the U.S. bomber. This is not different from Fail Safe, but unlike Fail Safe where the bomber is programmed to attack Moscow, in Dr. Strangelove the U.S. nuclear bomber has lost its direction (along with its fuel) and ultimately heads towards a Soviet ICBM launch site. In any case, both movies ridicule Soviet Union’s ability to intercept or attack the U.S. nuclear bombers – may or may not be true, but it is puerile to conclude that Soviet Union did not have equivalent attack capabilities or nuclear assets to counter the U.S.

In a nutshell, both movies can be watched, but I would recommend Fail Safe for an almost realistic experience with some very serious acting by the lead actors (Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, Larry Hagman, Dan O’Herlihy, and Frank Overton). I enjoyed it as it displays the full import of human emotions in very tense situations, tough decision-making by the U.S. President, and the vulnerability of any fail safe system. Ultimately, it is the man who makes the decision. I did not expect the ending, however. The U.S. President makes a hugely “expensive” and a very tough call to compensate the Soviet Union for the attack on Moscow, and he makes that decision without apparent pressures from anyone.

Worth watching !


Vijay Srinivasan

8th November 2015


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