Outstreched arm

Friday, June 17, 2005

The Matador...

Sidney Lumet's Fail-Safe tackles much the same issues as Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove - issues perhaps too similar at times - sans parody and humor (neither of which ever made me sincerely laugh.) Strangelove will forever be considered the better movie, but I had a much better cerebral time in Lumet's more realistic, claustrophobic universe. Let's see if the plot sounds familiar to you:

Due to a technical glitch, an American bomber is deployed on a mission to destroy Moscow. However, the SOP's dictate that the action cannot be reverted, and it's up to the President (an always compassionate Henry Fonda), his staff at the Pentagon - which features a too calculated academic (a creepy Walter Mathau) - bomber control, and everyone's equivalent in Moscow to prevent the situation from escalating into the end of civilization.

We are taken through the usual steps of introducing the chain of command, the military equipment, and some quick (but sharp) international politics. This is all necessary, but it doesn't distract Lumet from what I think he is trying to boil down the dilemma to: more basic human issues, such as, can people trust each other? how certain must one be in order to do X, and how to weigh the consequences of X? is an evil lesser by a quantitative degree really lesser at all? even if an answer is on the table, how does one decide to truly act on it?

It could be argued that at least one question is answered clearly here: technology is getting beyond human comprehension and ability to predict, and as such can't be relied on. However! as tension grows in the control room with the realization that the bombers can't be stopped and must now, through no fault of the people inside them, be considered enemy aircraft, one officer goes through a sudden breakdown and attempts feeble mutiny. Just what makes humans under pressure less prone to mistakes of all sorts than their mechanical counterparts? (I would be the first to argue that there are, as of now, simply no mechanical equivalents of fully-functioning humans, but the Pentagon is aware of this - that's why Strangelove/Fail-Safe scenarios aren't really possible as given.)

Speaking of Strangelove, for my money, Kubrick ultimately offers hysterical laughter as the only attempted commentary on the mess that are the Cold Wars. I'm not saying I dislike it, but it's not the great Cold War movie in terms of coverage of issues. Neither is Fail-Safe; for dealing with such a grand theme, it's a very stagey, compact production. This helps the performances but might bore the general audience (I am not trying to place myself above those; on the contrary, I think most movies should provide them with something.) For insight, it's still best to read a book.

I'd also like to point out that the bookend scenes are imagined and edited in way I found fascinating - here, the cheapness bleeds through the screen and becomes style. See the movie for this if nothing else.

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