Nobody married a stranger. Nobody won a million dollars or was attacked by a wild boar. In fact, most of the tension from Sunday night’s anticipated television stunt was based on political notions that died out long before there was such a thing as event TV. “Fail Safe,” a 37-year-old Cold War thriller produced live for CBS, proves that great dramas, even if they rank among George Clooney’s favorites, have a limited shelf life.
That doesn’t mean the event wasn’t a welcome addition to a TV schedule bloated with predictable three-hanky telepics and endless primetime gameshows. “Fail Safe” was superbly acted, flawlessly produced and had jaded industry insiders and critics drooling over themselves in anticipation.
The first live feature-length production in 39 years, “Fail Safe” played like a gift to the TV gods, a pristine replica of the good old days of television.
With 18 cameras, two soundstages and a cadre of Hollywood’s finest actors, “Fail Safe” was retro TV performed with the safety net of modern technology. It was about as authentic as new bell-bottoms, but is still a worthy tribute that reminds us of what was and can be great about television.
Approached with certain reverence by host Walter Cronkite, the movie, based on the 1962 novel by Harvey Wheeler and Eugene Burdick, was presented in black and white in a wide screen format. Undoubtedly too esoteric for the MTV generation, “Fail Safe” was a good match with CBS’ older core audience.
Still, the Cold War sentiments and notions of Soviet super power would seem old even to those who once believed in the idea that Communists were unfeeling warmongers. As a result, the production garnered most of its strength and drama from its actors who expertly portrayed the emotional toil and personal costs of war.
The movie’s closing moments and a brief epitaph listing the countries with nuclear capability also gave the film a definite chill.
Richard Dreyfuss excelled as the president who faces heart-wrenching decisions. Similarly, Noah Wyle, as Buck, the president’s interpreter, took what could have been a wooden role and gave it poignancy, with subtle facial expressions and mixed emotions.
Clooney, for all of his involvement in the project, took a back seat to the other actors, spending most of the movie behind an oxygen mask. But even secondary perfs, such as Brian Dennehy as General Bogan and Don Cheadle as Pierce, were expertly drawn with the actors seemingly feeding off each other’s momentum.
The production was eerily silent between dialogue and devoid of the layered sound and special effects that have become second skin to today’s shows. Minor line flubs, an unruly phone cord and distracting shufflings were the show’s only technical flaws.
Director Stephen Frears, with the help of veteran TV cameraman Marty Pasetta, stayed on top of the action, utilizing plenty of close ups to maintain the tension.