Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Papa Mike's Video #15: Stephen Frears' FAIL-SAFE (2000)

Proof positive that things look all the more apocalyptic with German language attached...
First things first, let's address the Medium/Message elephant in the room on this one: as something which could be seen as a publicity stunt more-so than a legitimate artistic choice (not saying definitely yes, just saying could depending on one's point of view), George Clooney decided as producer to take the novel-turned-movie Fail Safe as a live television event for CBS.  Of course this was a network that, as the now late Walter Cronkite tells us before the start of the program, hadn't broadcast a live fiction film in 39 years (ironically the 1964 film's director, Sidney Lumet, which I covered in this bloga almost five years ago, did a boatload of live TV in the 1950's).  So, the question stands: does it do anything?  Well, yes... and sort of no.

Yes in that the tension is certainly palpable for the actors.  But then again they are actors after all, and many of them assembled here top tier, including those who you may have forgotten appear from time to time in movies - Richard Dreyfuss, Harvey Keitel, George Clooney, Hank Azaria (in the role Walter Matthau made so cold and calculating but unrelentingly compelling), Norman Lloyd (remember him from Hitchcock and Trainwreck?), Brian Denehey, James Cromwell, and (sans mustache, the monsters!) Sam Elliott - and they are trained to do the best they can under good direction (and here they got a good one in Brit Stephen Frears).  Who cares if it's live, they should be able to get to those emotional high points without having to be on point every second, right?

However, context, that pesky rascal, counts in this case: this is material that is all about a (roughly) real-time, ticking clock scenario about a mistaken order to a bomber during the Cold War by the Americans to fly into Russian air space and drop the Big One over Moscow (it was a little more 'light-hearted', and by that I mean much more fucking dark, in Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove which came out before Fail-Safe 64 and was only better by nature of it being Dr. Strangelove).  So having it live, with the intensity of live theater and featuring many actors who have had their feet in theater for much (or at least some significant time) of their careers like Denehey and Keitel, makes it palpable, excrutiating and harrowing to watch in the best possible ways.  Can this order be stopped?  Can the American planes be shot down whether it's by the Americans or the Russians?  Do the Americans trust the Russians?  How can they?  Or visa-versa?

I remember in my original review of the Lumet film how I said it was strangely a film that was kind of life-affirming, that it showed what happens when people have to be pushed to try and stop the worst from happening and use reason and logic even in the face of all hope being possibly/probably/definitely lost.  There's the same principle at work in the 2000 version, though it feels a little bleaker, as if to say that 'Yes, we made it out of the Cold War, but now things are even more intense' (as if to drive the point home, too bluntly, before the end credits a list of countries that still have nuclear capabilities are put on the screen, as if to say 'See!') 

I think part of that has to do with a shorter run-time than the original; I won't compare step by step the two versions since I don't remember the original verbatim, but I do know that Lumet's film (as this one from a script by Walter Bernstein) was a half hour longer and gave more time for the Prof. Groeteschele character to argue and pontificate.  This may sound like a criticism, but that had Walter Matthau, who simply carried more emotional weight and conviction than Azaria (a very good actor in his own right) can do.  I'm not sure how much, if at all, it hurts this version to cut out so much; it's a streamlined version, with the events even more compact - the end of the world comes in 70 minutes this time instead of 105, and I wonder, watching it on video instead of on actual TV with commercials, if that had an impact.  My guess is probably so.

What has to work about the story of Fail-Safe, delivering suspense all through talk (hence why it fits a teleplay in its way just as much if not more than a movie, despite the complications of having the four sets of President room, two military posts and the bomb-plane), are the performances and the tension that all comes from logic being shat on in the face of the "Machines."  Dreyfuss is especially great as the President - he has to show so much resolve and calm, and keep things together when on the phone with the Russian premier.  He does it, but only just, and when he orders a (potential?) strike on New York city in the event of Moscow's destruction, notice the pain in his face, the sadness and desolation that Dreyfuss shows.  It's almost unfair to compare but Clooney, in his limited but crucial screentime, is only half as good (which is still fine).

A lot of Frears' direction comes down to how he has these men's faces in terror and control, holding back rage and (in the case of Azaria) the frightening calm of someone who doesn't connect with the destruction of millions of people on an emotional level.  Shooting in black and white makes sense - in color, for this time period and with the video that's being used, it would look false - though I still think there's something a little off about it as well.  It's high-definition and moves so quickly as to seem closer to 48fps; maybe this was for Clooney a test run for what he would do a few years later with Good Night, and Good Luck, which was shot on actual film and looks much better.

Ultimately this is a terrific piece of drama, and if I do prefer the 64 film it's because it has more things and they make it a fuller and richer experience (though not having a scene where Walter Matthau slaps a woman is certainly expected and fine to be excised in 2000).  Its taut running time delivers its own pleasures though, and to the director's credit I almost forgot it was a live TV production through the pacing and the cutting; only a few small decisions like extreme close-ups on Clooney/Cheadle/Heslov's eyes in their final moments is a little hackneyed.  Otherwise a solid-professional piece of work.