By Carter B. Horsley
The 1960's was one of the century's most turbulent decades: Drugs, the Space race, hippies, assassinations, civil protests against the Vietnam War, and the threat of the Cold War and nuclear annihilation challenged conventional mores and undercut individuals' sense of stability. It was an exciting Age of Uncertainty.
"Fail Safe" was a chilling novel about the Cold War and nuclear weapons that was written in 1962 by Harvey Wheeler and Eugene Burdick and made into a movie of the same name two years later by Sidney Lumet.
The movie was perhaps the best thriller of the period about the perils of nuclear weapons, but it followed on the heels of the satirical "Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb," which was immensely popular and not at all serious, and it overshadowed the far more powerful "Fail Safe."
Lumet's movie was a no-nonsense movie that was genuinely frightening and realistic. Both movies had a major character based on civilian adviser on national security who was clearly meant to be a Henry Kissinger-type "hawk," which was appropriate since Kissinger's early fame rested on his advocation of the permissible uses of "limited" nuclear warfare. In "Dr. Strangelove," he was played by Peter Sellers, who also played two other roles in that film, and in "Fall Safe," he was played by Walter Matthau.
The book and the movie challenged the public's perception that the military and government had perfected systems that absolutely would prevent accidents involving nuclear weapons. The plot has a bomber group not receive a command to fall back from its "fail safe" position and proceed to enter Russian air space to bomb Moscow. The "fail-safe" system had failed and the consequences were catastrophic.
This television remake was the brainchild of actor George Clooney, who convinced CBS to show the production live, the first live dramatic show on CBS in 39 years. Clooney, who played the pilot of the lead plane in the bomber group in the story, assembled an impressive cast: Brian Dehenny, Harvey Keitel, Richard Dreyfuss, Sam Elliott, Noah Wylie, and Norman Lloyd, among others and the show was shown in black-and-wide in wide-screen (letter-box) format.
The "live" production was heralded by many as an important event for television. "It proved that this medium's intimate immediacy is an underused asset waiting to be exploited in the service of compelling storytelling," commented Ron Wertheimer in his April 11, 2000 review of the program in The New York Times.
The two-hour program followed the movie closely in most regards but left out the movie's opening bull-fight dream had by General Black and General Grogan's discovery that Colonel Cascio had family problems when he picked him up on the way to work, two story elements that were quite important in developing the dramatic impact of the movie.
Despite its star cast, the program was something of a disappointment, at least for one familiar with the movie. Part of the problem, of course, was that it had several interruptions for commercials, which were placed appropriately but nonetheless broke much of the suspense. To its impressive credit, the program had excellent sets, was well directed and appeared to run "live" without a hitch. It used only a couple of film clips and did not try to update the story, whose urgency reflected to a great extent the Cold War anxiety of the early 1960's not long after the Cuban missile crisis and President Kennedy's assassination, events that are not discussed in either the movie or the program.
The story is not in the least dated, despite the easing of the Cold War and the collapse of Communism in Russia and the program ends with a list of the countries that now have nuclear weapons, which is more than when the movie was made.
What made the movie so fine apart from its story and message was its acting, and the television production fell down in this regard.
Brian Dehenny, a superb actor, was surprisingly wooden as General Grogan, who heads the national defense command center. His role in the movie was played with much more sympathy and nuance by Frank Overton. Dehenny has too much patience here, although he has a fine moment of exasperation, outrage and anger when he must assert his authority, reminding the audience that he is definitely not a man to trifle with or annoy.
At first, Richard Dreyfuss seemed an inappropriate choice to play the President, who was played with fabulous precision, authority and humanity in the movie by Henry Fonda in one of his best roles. Dreyfuss brought a fine earnestness to the role and had some excellent moments, but was not tailor-made for the role, which requires a bit more stature. One could imagine Dreyfuss doing an excellent Harry Truman, and the problem with this production is that it cannot really escape comparison with the film and the film was virtually flawless and brilliantly acted.
The hero in the film, at least to liberals who still existed when it was made, was General Warren "Blackie" Black, who was played with subtle and very memorable sensitivity by Dan O'Herlihy, his best role in his unfortunately and surprisingly short film career. O'Herlihy's Black was a military man of conscience and culture, duty and dedication, poignancy and poise, sense and sacrifice.
In the program, General Black is played by Harvey Keitel, whose casting seemed inspired as he is an actor of great power. Here, however, his raspy voice was a bit too soft and perhaps poorly miked and he lacked O'Herlihy's moral authority that welled up from his heart. Keitel's role, of course, was truncated by the program's script that cut out his terrifying dream that helped explain his anxiousness.
In the film, Walter Matthau plays the Kissinger-like character with a malevolent ruthlessness that was scary and believable and is the dramatic foil to General Black's more humane rationality. In the program, this role is played, or rather underplayed, by Hank Azaria. Matthau was a "force" to be reckoned with, but Azaria is merely a bothersome, petty nuisance, which is unfortunate because his is one of the critical roles as the voice of a "strong" America.
Fritz Weaver played the role of Colonel Cascio in the movie and was marvelous as a deeply troubled and disturbed man who breaks under the pressure of the events. John Diehl plays this role in the program with a blandness that really marred the production and robbed it of much of the power that it should have had. One could have criticized the film for being too liberal and making caricatures of the hawks, Professor Groteschele and Colonel Cascio, and perhaps the television production deliberately sought to water these roles down somewhat to make it more palatable in the more conservative political climate of the present.
Of course, the message of both productions is loud and clear and fearsome. Technology has outstripped man, and mankind must keep hold it and not lose control.
Clooney, who is to be praised for mounting this "live" production and recognizing the great merit of Lumet's film and the book, is stuck behind his oxygen mask for much of the production, which does not include some scenes from the movie in which his character is developed prior to taking off in his bomber. He is adequate in the role of Colonel Jack Grady, a role that was played with great authority and remorse in the movie by Ed Binns. Why Clooney did not take the role of General Black is something of a mystery as he probably would have been fine.
Sam Elliott as Representative Tom Raskob, Noah Wylie as Buck, the President's translator, and Norman Lloyd as Secretary of Defense Swenson, on the other hand, are excellent. Lloyd is so good he could have been cast as the President. Wylie, who co-starred with Clooney in the popular television program, "E.R.," was infinitely better in the role in the movie played by Larry Hagman, who would later go on to "Dallas" fame.
The script was written by Walter Bernstein, who also authored the movie script. Stephen Frears directed the production, which had a finely detailed precision and intensity.
The story presents the "unthinkable," cogently shows how the dilemma is handled and ends with a stunning solution that could hardly be said to bring joy.
Walter Cronkite introduced the program, lending weight and eminence to the "live" production. In a world where much of the younger generation has not seen black-and-white movies, let alone black-and-white television this was a most welcome effort.
While flawed and a bit static, the television production was a serious, quality effort of high purpose. Bravo.
The radical notion of making the production in black-and-white was highly successful, especially in the close-ups, of which there were many. Color can be more distracting but it also can convey more visual information. Sometimes less is more. Nostalgia, of course, usually implies a vagueness of sorts, but here the black-and-white was crystal clear and sharp and focused. Perhaps anchorpersons should only be shot in black-and-white and leave the color for the on-the-scene clips and the weatherman, of course.
The big news is that this was not a PBS special, but a program on a major network in prime time and CBS deserves praise for going along with it and hopefully it will remember that seriousness of purpose and high quality are valued by a lot of its viewers.