Fail Safe and When Safeguards Fail 

Columbia Pictures

It’s something as ostensibly obvious as it is something that has proven to be false: 

The people in charge will handle it. 

Won’t they? Isn’t that the hierarchy of things, the reason for hierarchies to exist? Isn’t that why we have rules and regulations, systems and safeguards? 

But then again, the people in charge are just that: people. The unpredictable human factor will rear its head as surely as it maintains its composure, and this is something as true in the movies as it is in the tumult of the past two years. For all the clinical ways we choose to categorize our crises—levels of black and red and green signifying the urgency of virus spread or the imminence of nuclear annihilation—there is a person who drew up those conditions of cataclysm. And, despite the sense of order we tell ourselves we live by, live under, and live for, it’s people, ultimately, whose decisions will either hasten or hold off cataclysm. 

Was it always supposed to get this bad? Can it possibly get any worse?

These questions are never spoken in Sidney Lumet’s masterfully taut Fail Safe (1964). But endlessly they bounce around the margins separating control from chaos, fashioning the film into a Large Hadron Collider in which the increasingly likely scenario-not-to-be-named is one that this movie’s colonels, politicians, and presidents have fully prepared for but never really prepared for. 

A veil of orderly procedure at a U.S. Air Force base has crumbled to reveal quiet, nervous anticipation. All eyes are peering up at a massive screen turning the war room into a cinema, of all things, escalating a daily drama into a dreaded nightmare: a fleet of blinking bombers, on its way to Moscow, bringing nuclear destruction in tow.  

A fail-safe mechanism has been triggered, its reasons unclear. A lapse in communications—its own origins unclear—has put these Cold War rivals, and maybe the whole world, on track for disaster. A coincidental turn of events for the worst, one worthy only of the movies? Well, yes and no. If there’s one thing we know about real life that’s just as true in the movies, it’s that when it rains, it pours. And the human factor can turn the downpour acidic. All that can be done is to guess the best plan to deter annihilation, and how much good is guessing when time doesn’t stop for us to arrive at our best guess? The situation grows more precarious by the minutethe kind of situation these people work day in and day out to avoid, or to fine-tune their defense mechanisms against. God forbid anyone let emotion into the mix. 

The military leaders had touted their latest tools and high-tech equipment, the things in place to indicate what’s coming as soon as the Russians make a move on the chessboard. But who built the machinery? Who programs the codes and fuels up the bombers? Who presses the proverbial big red button? As the visiting congressman wonders, “Who checks the checker?” These contradictions create the foundation for some of the best science fiction, so maybe it’s no coincidence that the sleek and slightly hieroglyphic sights of the war room resemble a place from the future. The use of starkly monochromatic cinematography is such that we imagine how it all would look if the bomb drops. 

When the bomb drops. 


Was it always supposed to get this bad? Can it possibly get any worse? 

It never felt, at the end of 2019 and the start of 2020, like cataclysm would arrive on our doorstep. Not really. Then again, that’s easy to assume when you have the luxury of limiting your exposure to TV images of locked-down cities overseas. It’s so deceptively easy to feign empathy when an increasingly interconnected world has somehow managed to become a more communicatively isolated one. Besides, surely we have systems in place to avoid similar challenges here…right? An unknown object flashes on the radar, and bombers zip to their fail-safe points. An unknown virus shuts down a city, and a global health care community mobilizes. What’s the point of preparation if you don’t prepare for the worst?

But the human factor need be no more than a small crack in that logic for the dam to burst. Apathy isn’t a particularly formidable fail-safe in its own right; only for a time can you hope that it keeps you from being swept into the oncoming tide, something a whole country learned for itself seemingly overnight in March of 2020. Uncertainty, inconsistency, and hesitancy abounded, dominating the national pandemic response of the United States and highlighting a paradox of 21st-century life not unlike what’s deconstructed in Lumet’s drama: the more we relinquish our agency, the more important it becomes to have agency. Call it a fail-safe. Call it moral responsibility. 

“The more complex an electronic system gets, the more accident-prone it is,” a character says in the movie. “Sooner or later, it breaks down.” We may look at our Apple devices now and think how prophetic that conclusion from six decades ago became. But fragility is also a constant when considering increasingly complicated rules of order and decorum. If there’s a tremor of doubt or inaction at the top, the ripples carry destruction all the way down, to the point that economies halt and parking lots of sports arenas become mass-testing sites ripped from disaster blockbusters. How long until this tide subsides? And what will we find when it does?

Was it always supposed to get this bad? Can it possibly get any worse? 

Come March of 2020—the point when the U.S. started to hold its collective breath, not knowing when we could exhale again—these questions were on everyone’s minds. Mine, too, though I wasn’t ready to acknowledge them. It’s not that I didn’t have time for such questions so much as I suddenly seemed to have all the time in the world before I had to take them seriously. 

For the time being, though, a precarious bliss. I shrugged my shoulders and even did a mental skip while hauling my office PC to my car, preparing for God-knows-how-many months of working from home. No morning commute? Convenient. Sifting through emails while still in my pajamas? What’s the downside? I was barely a year removed from moving to a new city, as far away from my closest friends and family as I’d ever been. In a way, I had already been isolated; I wouldn’t particularly miss seeing anyone I wasn’t not seeing already. I thought I had a safeguard. 

Maybe we all thought soin our own way, for a brief moment. Certainly our sense of community evolved when we couldn’t gather as a community like before, transcending basic definitions of societal togetherness to encompass neighborly sacrifice from six feet or more away. Fail Safe opens with a trio of introductory vignettes unfolding simultaneously at 5:30 a.m., as if the movie’s own sense of time has already been frozen in place by what’s to come. For a time, we may have convinced ourselves that our own frozen-in-place period would ultimately come to be defined by newfound empathy for one another. Maybe it even did, in its own way. For a brief moment. 

But safeguards are made to falter, whether they’re installed in bureaucratic protocols or psychological defense mechanisms. Weeks stretch into months, and the statistics no one wants to see worsen continue to worsen. Optimism becomes a mask that increasingly wears you down, and even if on a given day you may not have traveled hundreds of miles home or a few blocks to your favorite coffee shop, the reality that you can’t regardless is an invasive thing to consider. All of a sudden, you wake up one day to find that what once may have been a convenient one-stop, live-work-play space becomes an echo chamber for those questions you kept putting offwas it always supposed to get this bad? Can it possibly get any worse? 

The lack of a definitive answer removes any semblance of control, but you endure the routines anyway, even if they seem ludicrous. Ludicrous maneuvers become the only sensible ones late in the crisis driving Fail Safe, when the American personnel are ordered to collaborate with the Russians, revealing the weak spots in their flying war machinesan unprecedented display of vulnerability. We learned a thing or two about vulnerability over the last two years, too, in the hopes that something good will come of it. 


You can watch the entirety of Fail Safe before you realize that it contains not one note of a musical score. Lumet doesn’t need one to heighten the tension, and a similar lack of any structural trickery or narrative gimmick further foregrounds the movie’s driving sense of immediacy. Things will come to pass as they will come to pass. How we respond to the looming arrival of disaster, however, is on us and the systems we’ve put in place. The crisis escalates to the point of involving the unnamed U.S. President; when a translator, Buck (Larry Hagman), arrives, he’s greeted by Henry Fonda’s affable, genteel commander-in-chief with a trustworthy smile. He hasn’t broken a sweat yet, and why should he? This is merely procedure. Hence the way the President seems to sense Buck entering the elevator before seeing him, and the way he proactively warns against leaks to reporters, as if that were the worst potential outcome of what would happen on this day. 

When it comes down to it, the place in Fail Safe where the biggest choices are made—a small, windowless room inhabited only by the President and Buck—carries a lone piece of machinery: the telephone through which they will connect with the Soviet Premier, as well as the President’s military advisors. Even in this dynamic, there are hierarchies to follow: “If he gives advice, we take it.” If that directive isn’t the slightest bit maddening in its simplicity, it’s only because of Fonda’s cool and collected deliverya factor which will prove pivotal in the minutes to come. 

Meanwhile, warfare is being wrought in the skies over Russia as the bombers continue their advance, their pilots thinking they’ve been ordered to do so. But it’s only at a coldly minimal remove that we witness this, our perspective mostly limited to that of the Air Force leaders. Tiny ovals and triangles glide across the screenostensibly insignificant shapes with significant power. Humanity has a way of rendering cataclysmic things into symbols like these. A graph with waves on it denoting progress against a pandemic, for example. 

There’s a minefield of disassociation suggested by these symbols that blink, pop up, and fade away. The ideograms have a way of looking trite if we don’t have a dog in the fight, and so Lumet intercuts the wide eyes of uniformed colonels with fleeting shots of planes falling into the sea from a distance, as if to say, This is exactly as close as these military commanders should hope to get from the humanity making up their rank and file. This isn’t to say that they’re emotionless about the unfolding disaster; faint embers of empathy are glimpsed in their hollowed countenances, all but drained of sensible reaction. We might desperately wish it glowed brighter. 

But here, too, Fail Safe reveals the human factor to be two-faced. At almost the same time as the President is appealing to his Soviet counterpart’s better nature by breaking down political barriers, an American colonel jumps at the chance to strike Moscow while its defenses are occupied, driven as much by opportunism as by desperation while violently lashing out at superiors. If that vital decorum is ruptured in a position where stately protocol will win the day, what hope is there for anyone, anywhere? 

Was it always supposed to get this bad? Is it now, finally, getting better? 

Fail Safe’s advertising touted the movie as one which “will have you sitting on the brink of eternity!” For all the ways the film imbues in us a sense of vertigo, right up to its final discordant moments of arriving destruction, this is the rare enthusiastic tagline that ends up being true. In some respects, it feels like it should have been the last movie that was ever made, its closing montage an acknowledgement that we were only ever headed toward mutually assured destruction. 

The ending culminates in something forceful and grim, to be sure, as much as any Hollywood finale has taken audiences to the edge of eternity and pushed them right over. But it’s in the glow of that implied cataclysm that we might recall sage advice from earlier in the film, when there’s still room to believe that Fonda’s regal presence might be enough to imagine a happy ending. “It’s big, alright,” his President says. “But it still depends on what each of us does. History lesson number one.”


It’s a sharp irony that for most of 2020 and some of 2021, one of the best things we could have done for each other was isolate ourselves from each other, though no one will remember lockdown as a period of passivity. Over Zoom panels and the eerie quiet of city streets, we discovered that having agency meant surrendering the things we’re not likely to take for granted ever again. It also meant recognizing that safeguards won’t always be able to save us, that the best course of action won’t always be taken by the people who should most passionately be taking them. Responsibility remains an equalizing factor nonetheless. It still depends on what each of us does. 

Watching Fail Safe now—at this exact point in time—it’s easy to imagine Fonda addressing us through the screen and through the decades, instead of Buck. A second year of adjusting to a new abnormal is in its final weeks, having renewed the truth that’s evident in that pivotal bit of dialogue, and ingrained in every flesh-and-blood response to mechanical failures in Fail Safe: from here on out, just as it’s always been, it’s on us to decide how to respond when it seems everything sits on the brink of eternity.