The most potent moment in the live black-and-white broadcast of the drama “Fail Safe” does not come from the U.S. President (Richard Dreyfuss) telling the Russian chairman what he will do if Moscow is bombed by a plane flying on erroneous orders, made so by a computer error. It is not the realization by the men in the room with Secretary of Defense Swenson (Norman Lloyd) about what will happen, or Colonel Cascio (John Diehl) on the phone to his mother in New York City after hearing of the president’s plan.
It is a simple shot during the end credits of a military officer unplugging the red phone to Moscow and placing it on a side table, along with headphones used by a translator (Noah Wyle), then placing water glasses on a tray and leaving. There is no one sitting in the president’s chair. The translator has left too. It is the one shot that says the most about military technology used in peacetime and war, about how it is operated, about the consequence brought on by it, not just in the countries affected, but in the case of there being an error as tragic as this one. Any man can sit in the president’s seat and any high-level general can oversee the military. Personnel will change. Ideas will change. But ultimately, there is still a human element to what happens around the world. It doesn’t matter how automated the technology can be. That’s what brought on the massive trouble in the first place.
It was likely George Clooney’s doing that brought “Fail Safe” to CBS for the first live broadcast in 39 years, according to Walter Cronkite who introduces the drama. And whether it was for political reasons, his desire to have people pay more attention to the dangers that come with unchecked, yet confided-in technology, or just to bring forth the cast that performs as if the threat is real, it is a strong, deeply-felt work that brings us just as much into the fold as the actors are, and invites all viewpoints as well. In a conference room in the Pentagon, there’s the Secretary of Defense, and Brigadier General Black (Harvey Keitel), Blackie to his cohorts and the president, a close friend. There’s also Professor Groteschele (Hank Azaria) who watches human nature through statistics and likelihoods and history. Despite how wrong he is in the face of the situation, he has his long-held convictions. Voices are given to all who have their beliefs of what might have happened. Quite frankly, they’re not sure at the start and they think of every possibility, save for a mechanical failure from the technology made by Gordon Knapp (James Cromwell) for the military. “Fail Safe” not only allows time for these people to think through what might have occurred, but also invite us to consider it ourselves, not just in what we might do and not just what we know, but what it means to the world today. Obviously, since 1964, we have advanced in our vigilant watch on the rest of the world. There’s no doubt that today, we also have “checks upon checks upon checks,” as General Bogan (Brian Dennehy) boasts in introducing Knapp and Congressman Raskob (Sam Elliott) to the military precision surrounding them.
It’s also an incredibly brave undertaking, considering the number of sets involved in the production and the coordination required. There’s not just the big war board which General Bogan and others watch to track their planes and Russian planes, but also a nearly-nondescript room where the president talks on the phone to the Russian chairman and considers the impact of the action he has decided upon. The production design by Richard Hoover reflects the workings of this government, of what comes next. And it can’t be denied by any means the caliber of talent that’s spread throughout these 84 minutes. They obviously understood the importance and historical precedent of a live broadcast and everyone’s roundly convincing. Harvey Keitel looks like a general, burning out from the job, perhaps needing a vacation as his wife suggests, but still devoted wholeheartedly to country and military. Hank Azaria is that professor of an “expensive think tank,” and it’s hard to believe that this kind of television endeavor wasn’t taken up again soon after. Today it’s just a gimmick, such as when “Will & Grace” did it twice, the first time waiting for Deborah Messing and Sean Hayes to stop laughing out of character and just get on with it. But remembering Alec Baldwin’s performance in that episode, it might just be time for another live broadcast, preferably with him and maybe a few of the others in “Fail Safe.” It’s the way television started. Why not revisit it?
But if nothing new transpires, there’s still “Fail Safe” on DVD, harrowing enough to make your hands curl, thinking about how you might feel if this fictional world event happened. It’s funny, though, how the only extra on the DVD is a trailer for “Ocean’s Thirteen” and considering the content of “Fail Safe,” it feels very much out of place. But after finishing “Fail Safe,” it’s understood that the trailer is meant to be watched after, something to lighten the load on the heart and mind. That’s what drama of paramount importance is, however, and it’s fortunate that it’s available now, a piece of history, and effective emotions.