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Warner Home Video presents
Fail Safe (2000)

"Well, Buck. We've invaded Russia."
- The President of the United States (Richard Dreyfuss)

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: June 19, 2007

Stars: Hank Azaria, Don Cheadle, George Clooney, James Cromwell, Brian Dennehy, John Diehl, Richard Dreyfuss, Sam Elliott, Harvey Keitel, Norman Lloyd, William Smitrovich, Noah Wyle
Director: Martin Passetta Jr., Stephen Frears

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:24m:20s
Release Date: June 05, 2007
UPC: 085391865322
Genre: television

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ BB+B D-

DVD Review

It may be kind of downscale to say so when you're Big Mr. Movie Star, but George Clooney loves television, and he harbors a nostalgia for its Golden Age. He's talked frequently about growing up the son of a broadcaster; both of the films he's directed to date (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night, and Good Luck.) have as their heroes television personalities; and he was a principal force behind a live episode of E.R. broadcast before he left the show. There's a cultivated retro feel to this production of Fail Safe—it's clearly a call back to the days of Texaco Star Theater and the like, for the production went out live on CBS in April 2000. This DVD release, seven years after the fact, leaves us pondering that broadcast oxymoron "taped live," and its Cold War sensibility, which seemed somewhat quaint back in the waning days of the Clinton Administration, seems downright Paleolithic now. But if you've got a taste for the old stuff, it's kind of worth a trip in the wayback machine for this one.

The material may be familiar to you from the big screen, for the novel on which this teleplay was based also served as the source material for a 1964 movie directed by Sidney Lumet and featuring Henry Fonda, Larry Hagman and Walter Matthau. When you're dealing with this story, it's almost impossible not to draw comparisons with Dr. Strangelove, which came out the same year and tells almost an identical story—what's played for midnight black humor by Kubrick is done in deadly earnest in Fail Safe, and though the prospect of nuclear Armageddon isn't on the face of it the stuff of great comedy, you sometimes wish that everybody else was in on the joke. (Some of the production design in the TV version seems deliberately to invoke the Kubrick picture.)

The setup is the same: what was purported to be a foolproof system for the prevention of nuclear war has been discovered to have an Achilles' heel. Here it's a computer glitch, which has given the go code to an Air Force fighter jet—the top secret orders provide for the plane to drop a couple of 20-megaton warheads on Moscow, annihilating the city and killing millions. Clooney plays the pilot of the plane, and Don Cheadle is his wingman—you can see the beginning of the assembly of Danny Ocean's crew, and the seeds of later projects, too, for the third flight officer is played by Grant Heslov, Clooney's producer and screenwriting partner on Good Night and Good Luck. The crosscutting action takes us to the war room and the big board—Norman Lloyd, a true veteran of TV's Golden Age, is the Secretary of Defense, butting heads most notably with Hank Azaria as an academic plumping for a massive nuclear attack and blithe to the consequences, seeming like a Cold War Paul Wolfowitz. We're also privy to conversations at a sensitive military installation in Omaha, with Brian Dennehy as the commanding officer and Sam Neill as a visiting Congressman; and to claustrophobic scenes of the unnamed President, played by Richard Dreyfuss, interacting only with his translator (Noah Wyle) on a series of conference calls, most with the Soviet premier.

The style of the whole piece is deliberately locked down—it's a story of translators and telephones and intercoms, and requires you to attend to the word in a way that television usually doesn't. It's worth doing, because the stakes are so high—quite literally, it's a movie about the end of the world, and in which the unthinkable is cooperation with the Russians. The binary thinking of the Cold War permeates the story, and it had to have been the stuff of nightmares for 1960s audiences—we've got our own international terrors and threats to deal with, and to our sense, this stuff can seem almost downright quaint. But there's a lot of quality work here, not only from the actors, but also the production team, especially cinematographer John Alonzo. Walter Cronkite, the grand old man of CBS News, even provides a brief introduction—he stumbles over a syllable, and you can sort of see his instinct kick in for a retake, but broadcast vet that he is, he smiles at his mistake and soldiers on. And that's the way it is.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Pretty standard transfer, but one that compares well with the poor technical quality of so much vintage television.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: Some buzz and ambient noise, but likely to do with the circumstances of show night, not the transfer.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 25 cues and remote access
1 Other Trailer(s) featuring Ocean's Thirteen
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: Only a trailer for Clooney's upcoming summer sequel.

Extras Grade: D-


Final Comments

A shimmering piece of nostalgia for a couple of eras long past: the golden age of television, and the Cold War deterrence of mutually assured destruction.


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