1111 Fail Safe

Discuss DVDs and Blu-rays released by Criterion and the films on them. If it's got a spine number, it's in here. Threads may contain spoilers.
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domino harvey
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1111 Fail Safe

#1 Post by domino harvey » Thu Sep 26, 2019 2:38 pm

Fail Safe

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This unnerving procedural thriller painstakingly details an all-too-plausible nightmare scenario in which a mechanical failure jams the United States military's chain of command and sends the country hurtling toward nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Working from a contemporary best seller, screenwriter Walter Bernstein and director Sidney Lumet wrench harrowing suspense from the doomsday fears of the Cold War era, making the most of a modest budget and limited sets to create an atmosphere of clammy claustrophobia and astronomically high stakes. Starring Henry Fonda as a coolheaded U.S. president and Walter Matthau as a trigger-happy political theorist, Fail Safe is a long-underappreciated alarm bell of a film, sounding an urgent warning about the deadly logic of mutually assured destruction.

SPECIAL FEATURES

• New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
• Audio commentary from 2000 featuring director Sidney Lumet
• New interview with film critic J. Hoberman on 1960s nuclear paranoia and Cold War films
"Fail-Safe" Revisited, a short documentary from 2000 including interviews with Lumet, screenwriter Walter Bernstein, and actor Dan O'Herlihy
• PLUS: An essay by critic Bilge Ebiri

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Re: Forthcoming: Fail-Safe

#2 Post by FrauBlucher » Thu Sep 26, 2019 2:40 pm

domino harvey wrote:
Thu Sep 26, 2019 2:38 pm
As teased in the newsletter clue
Not the Lumet I would've picked to be the third. Oh well.

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Re: Forthcoming: Fail-Safe

#3 Post by domino harvey » Thu Sep 26, 2019 2:43 pm

Here’s the back and forth between swo and myself on the merits of this film, and our thoughts on By the Dawn’s Early Light, a film with similar themes, from the War List Thread:
domino harvey wrote:
Sat Apr 26, 2014 9:40 pm

Fail-Safe (Sidney Lumet 1964) I've been saving this one, as the subject matter led me to believe it'd be right up my alley, but unfortunately this mostly just frustrated me (and not in the thought-provoking, liberal message movie manner the film desires). A lot of the film's problems stem from the dramatic vogue of the era towards an unspoken requirement that all overly serious drama must be morbidly dour. And so the entire interminable first act for this film is filled with Important exchanges, eye-rolling character introductions (Walter Matthau slapping a professor groupie [?] to indicate he's a Questionable Character is up there in the Screenplay Hall of Shame) and laughable musings on the moment before the actual plot kicks in. But to the film's credit, the middle section mostly works, with some tense escalations and a few moments that even border on great, such as one commander's violent revolt in the Omaha headquarters against what he perceives to be treasonous acts on the part of the President. Speaking of... My single biggest issue with the film, and one that I cannot reconcile, is that I do not believe any US President, no matter how awful or ill-suited for the job (and there's no indication Henry Fonda is either), would
SpoilerShow
willfully kill at least five million Americans, even to ostensibly even up for the error-driven destruction of Moscow. The way this all plays out has to be one of the most aggravating things I've seen in forever-- After all the hand-wringing over shooting down US pilots, Fonda's matter-of-fact declaration that they'll have to destroy NYC to even things up is accepted almost without comment by everyone involved, as though this were a natural progression, when it is not. Even if, devil's advocate, this Mutually Assured Equivalency were something that needed to be done by the US itself against the US itself, wouldn't you wait for confirmation of destruction beyond the phone emitting a signal? I could see the struggle to deal with this decision and even highlighting its foolhardiness contributing to the discussion this film so desperately wants to provoke, and yet the movie aligns itself with Fonda's decision. The only character involved who handles it in a fashion consistent with their character is Matthau, who gives a talk on why it will be necessary for corporations to reclaim their important papers after the dust settles that is supposed to sound callous but at least exhibits logical sense based on what we've known (and isn't that crazy, really) and is in its fashion less callous than anyone else's response of complicity in letting the President of the United States immediately kill everyone in NYC to teach us the audience a lesson in why we're all to blame if something like this happens. UGH.
swo17 wrote:
Sat Apr 26, 2014 10:30 pm
Fail-SafeShow
Well, I never read the destruction of NYC as a way to simply "even things up" so as to fulfill playground law, or to teach the audience a lesson. It was precisely the kind of crazy, doomed move that had to be made to convince the Soviets that the attack on them had been a grave error. At this point in the film, we've left the real world and entered post-apocalyptic damage control. It was either something like that or they would retaliate by destroying a lot more of the country than just NYC. And I don't see the film as pointing fingers of blame either. On the contrary, everyone here does about as well with the situation as they can. What I think the film is demonstrating is that even when we're at our best, we can't foresee every possibility, and we can't take for granted the potential ramifications of human or mechanical error.
domino harvey wrote:
Sat Apr 26, 2014 10:38 pm
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If it's not an evening up move than it's now worse-- surely there's a better way to placate the Russians than killing over five million Americans? And how about the reveal that Fonda's wife is in NYC, as though killing literally millions of people couldn't offer enough dramatic possibilities to the audience for his weighty decision!

The moment near the end where the Russian Premiere keeps telling Fonda that it was an error and no one was to blame and Fonda keeps interrupting him and telling him no, they're both to blame for it getting to this is what I mean when I say the movie is saying the systems of armed warfare and not the mechanical method of their delivery are at fault.
swo17 wrote:
Sat Apr 26, 2014 11:09 pm
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Well, I could have done without his wife happening to be there--I'll grant you that. And yes, the film is questioning the system in place, but I don't feel like it's doing so obnoxiously. It's more of a "food for thought" exercise.

And not to get all warren oates on you, but how exactly would you propose placating the Russians after having decimated their most prestigious city? Bear in mind that every moment counts in a scenario like this, and that the Russians could read the phone apology as a diversion tactic intended to confuse them while the U.S. is moving into position for more attacks. It has to be an action that can be quickly verified by the Russian air fleet. Maybe I would just make a bad president/am biased against New York City, but nothing else is really springing to my mind.
domino harvey wrote:
Sat Apr 26, 2014 11:19 pm
SpoilerShow
As I would tell our esteemed fellow forum member (though you obviously mean it in jest), I'm not going to get lured into rewriting this or any film, I am just addressing what I perceive to be flaws. And a film doesn't get credit for having a flawed answer to a question it went out of its way to pose. This isn't a documentary (Wait, actually, let me double check...)

Maybe it is pedantic, but actually having the President and therefore America doing the killing ourselves is what really makes it beyond the pale to me-- if you absolutely have to go with the murder all of NYC, why do we have to be the ones who do it? If the Russians have the capabilities they say they do, why not just be like "Okay, fire a missile at NYC and we're even"? There is a fundamental moral/ethical difference between standing aside and the President actively pushing the button against his fellow Americans. And again, if we are doing it, why do we do so immediately without any confirmation? It just strikes me as cheap provocation without consideration for the logic of the situation. And I wouldn't necessarily be opposed to a film provoking the viewer in this fashion if it also showed any interest in following through on exploring what this means beyond some visiting schmoe in Omaha going "Well, what else you expect him to do?"

I suspect the film would be far more effective if it just ended a couple minutes earlier with the squeal on the other end of the phone carrying over to the end credits, and the question of whether or not Fonda does give the go ahead to the NYC bomber remaining unanswered. Though then we wouldn't get that truly awful "The matador... IS ME!" moment, would we?
swo17 wrote:
Sat Apr 26, 2014 11:45 pm
SpoilerShow
All right, he could have let the Russians do it. Or maybe not making them use one of their own valuable missiles was the polite thing to do after having just delivered them a substantial economic setback?

As for getting confirmation of Moscow's destruction, I don't know how it would have gone down in real life, but it never felt like there was any question of this in the film. Both countries had radar systems in place and jets in the air. I mean, I guess they could've added a few lines of dialogue to make it abundantly clear that Moscow really had been destroyed, but I didn't need convincing.
domino harvey wrote:
Sat Apr 26, 2014 11:50 pm
SpoilerShow
I do not doubt as a viewer that Moscow's gone, but if I had to make the call to destroy a US city in the wake, I'd want more confirmation than we saw anyone receive in the film! Hell, I check to make sure the front door locks behind me with more tenacity than was exerted towards annihilating millions. But this is getting pretty silly now. I think we see where both of us are coming from. Now let's devote valuable brain time to wrapping our heads around the fact that famous bachelor George Clooney just got engaged. Truly the grim prophecies of an unpredictable world shown in Fail-Safe have some modern-day relevancy
swo17 wrote:
Sun Apr 27, 2014 12:06 am
SpoilerShow
Actually, maybe "We'll get George Clooney to marry" would have been just the thing to smooth things over with the Russians...

"Seriously, you could do that?"
"Just let me make a few calls."
"He would make a good father."
"I know."
"This really puts things in perspective."
domino harvey wrote:
Sun Apr 27, 2014 6:18 pm

By Dawn's Early Light (Jack Sholder 1990) And here, fortuitously, is the answer to so many of Fail-Safe's problems. This HBO original movie is clearly indebted to Lumet's notorious film, but the questions it poses and the directions it goes are far more interesting. Fail-Safe was concerned with showing and then discarding the processes of stop-gaps between humanity and nuclear holocaust as a warning against complacency and false security in our warfare systems. A heady goal, but one wholly undone by the far-fetched and unlikely ending (as I see it and have already laid out). Here there are no such lofty goals above entertainment and suspense, and as a result the work is maybe not as artsy as the original, but gone too is the self-importance and in its place is a real nail-biter of escalating tension. In this movie, the premise is somewhat flipped, as Russia is attacked by an unknown party assumed to be Americans and they retaliate against us, and a series of escalations and decisions both good and bad are made as both sides careen towards total annihilation. By Dawn's Early Light doesn't open up the action much more than Fail-Safe, but the scope is larger and the characters within the narrative are able to breathe a little beyond being archetypes and military automatons. Indeed, one of the film's greatest achievements is it concedes that those put in the position of pushing the button may push back when pressed themselves, and the minor quarrels of treason in the Lumet film are replaced with plentiful people countermanding orders and getting into even stickier situations as a result.

Though it's not quite an all-star cast, the primary credited actors are all familiar character actors and do a good job with what is a mostly "Just the facts, ma'am" approach. Special praise goes to Darren McGavin as the lowly Secretary of Interior who (through a series of circumstances that don't necessarily constitute a spoiler) finds himself the unlikely Commander in Chief and proceeds to let his insecurities and inferiority complex color his decisions as acting President, verbally invoking Truman in such a fashion that would make anyone uneasy. He and several other characters make hard decisions with such simplistic flippancy that it really drives home how few people stand in the way between all of us and none of us. While some characters who stick their neck out come out of it pretty well, the film is cruel when it needs to be without ever having to devolve into preachiness as, again, the film has no interest in paying lip-service to the idea of nuclear warfare as good or bad and is instead focused on being superior entertainment. And it is that. Highly recommended, especially as a corrective/supplement to Fail-Safe.
swo17 wrote:
Fri May 02, 2014 11:50 am
domino harvey wrote:By Dawn's Early Light (Jack Sholder 1990) And here, fortuitously, is the answer to so many of Fail-Safe's problems.
I'm not surprised you would say that, given this exchange early in the film:

"Sir, we have a nuclear detonation in the Soviet Union."
"I want absolute verification."

This was a very good recommendation to follow up Fail-Safe though. It almost plays like a feature length alternate ending to that film, which was more concerned with what happens when the potential for an attack is first discovered, whereas this film takes the attack as a starting point and from there goes off in all sorts of interesting directions. I might say it does this at the expense of a singular focus for its intensity (I wasn't quite left on the edge of my seat here as much as I was with Fail-Safe, where the majority of the film takes place in just a couple of rooms, as Lumet is wont to do) but I'd more just say that the two films are doing different things, and doing them very well.

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Re: Forthcoming: Fail-Safe

#4 Post by ftsoh » Thu Sep 26, 2019 2:48 pm

Perfect double feature with Dr. Strangelove.

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Re: Forthcoming: Fail-Safe

#5 Post by swo17 » Thu Sep 26, 2019 3:04 pm

domino harvey wrote:
Thu Sep 26, 2019 2:43 pm
Here’s the back and forth between swo and myself on the merits of this film. By the Dawn’s Early Light decades later was a far smarter and plausible take on this kind of story (and swo’s response to it as well immediately follows my second linked post)
This announcement clearly means I won

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Re: Forthcoming: Fail-Safe

#6 Post by domino harvey » Thu Sep 26, 2019 3:10 pm

If you can call a release by the same label that put out Jellyfish Eyes and Equinox winning, then sure

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Re: Forthcoming: Fail-Safe

#7 Post by swo17 » Thu Sep 26, 2019 3:12 pm

Convenient how you don't give them credit for being discerning enough to pass on Jellyfish Eyes 2

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Re: Forthcoming: Fail-Safe

#8 Post by knives » Thu Sep 26, 2019 3:51 pm

Equinox isn't even bottom 500 for Crit.

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Re: Forthcoming: Fail-Safe

#9 Post by Big Ben » Thu Sep 26, 2019 3:59 pm

Y'all appear to have forgotten that Border Radio exists.

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Re: Forthcoming: Fail-Safe

#10 Post by FrauBlucher » Thu Sep 26, 2019 4:08 pm

Someone sounds like a sore loser

But in all seriousness I was surprised this wasn’t already out. I had to check to see if this was with Twilight Time or another label. Plus, it’s been restored for quite a while (although Sony was upgrading fairly regularly before the other studios)

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Re: Forthcoming: Fail-Safe

#11 Post by BillyLiar » Thu Sep 26, 2019 5:29 pm

Hilarious back and forth.

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Re: Forthcoming: Fail-Safe

#12 Post by swo17 » Thu Sep 26, 2019 5:57 pm

BillyLiar wrote:
Thu Sep 26, 2019 5:29 pm
Hilarious back and forth.
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Until you realize that domino just nuked NYC as retaliation against Criterion. Hypocrite!

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Re: Forthcoming: Fail-Safe

#13 Post by domino harvey » Thu Sep 26, 2019 8:37 pm

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Re: Forthcoming: Fail-Safe

#14 Post by How rude! » Thu Sep 26, 2019 10:43 pm

I think you might be wrong. It is a microwave, not a safe. Fahrenheit 9/11. Not a handle and dial,but the number 10. I'm almost certain. Almost....

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Re: Forthcoming: Fail-Safe

#15 Post by therewillbeblus » Fri Sep 27, 2019 12:14 am

I found this forgettable like much of Lumet’s 60s work that others seem to like (though I do really enjoy The Fugitive Kind more than most..) but I’ll give it another shot since it’s been a while.

The best part about the announcement is how the clue is so straightforward it’s basically impossible to guess incorrectly, even as a joke, and yet over on reddit there are people genuinely in doubt. The guy who guessed F for Fake in earnest made my day.

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Re: Forthcoming: Fail-Safe

#16 Post by domino harvey » Wed Oct 16, 2019 5:24 pm

They skipped a hundred spots ahead for the spine number...

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Re: Forthcoming: Fail-Safe

#17 Post by soundchaser » Wed Oct 16, 2019 5:26 pm

domino harvey wrote:
Wed Oct 16, 2019 5:24 pm
They skipped a hundred spots ahead for the spine number...
Trying to emulate Indicator, obviously.

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Re: 1111 Fail-Safe

#18 Post by mfunk9786 » Wed Oct 16, 2019 5:26 pm

Guessing the spine is a typo and it was meant to be 1011? The bigger news: Criterion ditched the hyphen on this one, they're calling it Fail Safe on the cover and in the materials, a la the original poster

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Re: 1111 Fail-Safe

#19 Post by FrauBlucher » Wed Oct 16, 2019 5:27 pm

A huge boxset is coming

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Re: 1111 Fail-Safe

#20 Post by DarkImbecile » Wed Oct 16, 2019 5:27 pm

I think the intern just screwed up, unless they purposely made the Almodovar 1112 as well.

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Re: 1111 Fail-Safe

#21 Post by FrauBlucher » Wed Oct 16, 2019 5:38 pm

The J Hoberman supp sounds very interesting

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Re: 1111 Fail Safe

#22 Post by barryconvex » Thu Oct 17, 2019 12:33 am

I'm in the domino camp on this one, the ending to this movie has always struck me as patently ludicrous. Which is a shame because until then it's extremely effective. The 60s Lumet that needs resurrecting is The Hill, which I don't believe has a blu release anywhere.

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Re: 1111 Fail-Safe

#23 Post by Gregory » Thu Oct 17, 2019 1:26 am

mfunk9786 wrote:
Wed Oct 16, 2019 5:26 pm
Guessing the spine is a typo and it was meant to be 1011? The bigger news: Criterion ditched the hyphen on this one, they're calling it Fail Safe on the cover and in the materials, a la the original poster
Given the choice between following the poster and the film's title card (hyphenated), I can't see why they'd opt for what was on the poster, especially considering that this is the movie adaptation of the novel Fail-Safe, and the title card typographically replicated the original book cover (and the producers of the doc Criterion is including of course understood that the title had a hyphen).

Where's the hyphen, Criterion? The world wants to know what happened to the hyphen.

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Re: 1111 Fail Safe

#24 Post by swo17 » Thu Oct 17, 2019 1:31 am

I think they realized this was the only way to make both me and domino unhappy

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Re: 1111 Fail Safe

#25 Post by FrauBlucher » Tue Dec 10, 2019 5:40 pm


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