Through a Lens, Darkly
VITAL WORKS RECONSIDERED, #39
Ed. Note: In this installment of our Vital Works series, we once again shift gears in order to focus on a motion picture. The film medium has proven to be an enduring art form, and certain motion pictures have legitimately attained the status of “classics” — not necessarily due to their age but to the excellence they achieved in writing, acting, and directing. A select number of these classics have something significant to say to us in our time and are thus worthy of a fresh retrospective. In the following article, Stanley T. Grip Jr. looks at why Fail-Safe (1964) is so deserving. Many readers will no doubt be familiar with its similarly plotted contemporary, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. As a result of the release of Kubrick’s film only a few months earlier, commercial success eluded Fail-Safe; but the author argues that the drama and thematic content of the latter film mark the work as exemplary, and continue to compel the attention of contemporary viewers.
Fail-Safe. Directed by Sidney Lumet. Screenplay by Walter Bernstein.
There was once a time when the phrase “adult film” implied cinematic content worthy of consideration, and conveyed to the viewer something more than gratuitous content. It was a time when artful filmmakers could portray the great themes of drama and tragedy with a few black-and-white close-ups, and could definitively describe even the most unspeakable violence by implication rather than depiction. In those days, for example, a good adult movie could revisit the timeless theme of human hubris, and do so without a single frame of on-screen gore, f-bomb dialog, or overt eroticism. For a younger generation immersed in the crapulent sensory overload that constitutes contemporary American culture, such assertions may strain credulity; but as one who is well and truly embarked on his seventh decade of drawing breath, I can testify that it was once so.
The notion of hubris is as recognizable today as it was to those who heard the first recitations of Homer, or the first proclamation of Genesis: The disastrous consequences of arrogance, pride, and excessive self-confidence remain as compelling today as they were then to those ancient listeners. In the intervening years, the advent of the Industrial Age in the eighteenth century created an entirely new perspective for this theme: that of the man-made machine gone wrong. In turn, the scope of that theme has grown to accommodate the accelerating advances in science and engineering over the past two and a half centuries. In 2014 two generations of technology-besotted Americans continue that trend, complacent in the expectation of a nonstop flow of beneficial personal technology, firm in the confidence of process, output, and final result.
Fifty years ago a similar level of confidence was felt in the supposedly foolproof technical quality of America’s nuclear-weapon command-and-control system. That confidence was the subject of Fail-Safe, a cinematic thriller based on a simple but ominous premise: As a result of a technical malfunction, a flight of American supersonic bombers equipped with nuclear weapons is accidentally sent the go-code for an attack on Moscow. Building on this premise (borrowed from the novel of the same name by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler), director Sidney Lumet created a relentlessly compelling film: Once the story’s malfunction premise is established, the movie’s accelerating tempo inexorably captures the viewer’s attention, and holds it until the film’s searing conclusion.
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