STUDIO: Warner Bros.
MSRP: $19.98
RUNNING TIME: 85 Minutes
Ocean’s Thirteen Trailer

The Pitch

“When I think topical drama, I think a 1960s pressure-cooker piece on Cold War politics. Yeah, that’s the ticket! Everyone should still find that relevant!”

The Humans

Richard Dreyfuss, Noah Wylie, Hank Azaria, Brian Dennehy, George Clooney, Harvey Keitel, Sam Elliot, John Diehl, Don Cheadle, James Cromwell, Norman Lloyd

The Nutshell

The 1960s. Cold War-tensions are at their highest. With the threat of nuclear annihilation ever-present, the US military devises a new, fail-safe way to regulate bombing orders using computers to reduce human error. But when the machines fail, and a bombing squadron unknowingly goes rogue…

Lemme sum this up right quick. You seen Dr. Strangelove? This is the non-funny version.

"Well, I guess we proved 700 Altoids does not an adequate Viagra substitute make. I need to throw up. Also I think I have diabetes."

The Lowdown

A fellow wiser than myself once said, “Tragedy + Time = Comedy.” He didn’t use the symbols, but fuck you for nitpicking. Anyways, I think that idea’s the reason why out of both nuclear holocaust movies released in 1964 (see? Before the Armageddon/Deep Impact or Volcano/Dante’s Peak days, Hollywood was still all about taking a hot idea and milking it for all it was worth), Dr. Strangelove is viewed with higher regard than Fail-Safe is. I’m not going to contest that; it might be Kubrick’s best film, and time has only enriched it, letting modern viewers better appreciate the jet-black absurdity of the Cold War present in the flick (and let’s be fair: it’s a lot easier to enjoy a comedy about nuclear devastation when you’re not living under the very-real threat of said devastation). It was ahead of its time in ways that the original Fail-Safe, which was very much a product of the times, was not. Still, it’s a solid flick nonetheless with a palpable sense of dread, a great third act twist, and some terrific direction courtesy of Sidney Lumet.

Not surprisingly, it had a big influence on George Clooney. Look at some of the flicks on his C.V.—Syriana, Good Night and Good Luck, Three Kings. These films are all deeply mired in a sense of realpolitik, and so was Fail-Safe. But when he announced he would be producing a live-television remake, complete with an introduction from Walter Cronkite…well, it seemed a little much. Despite the “live” gimmick, who the hell would care about a glorified look at a decidedly unglamorous piece of American history, a dated one at that, and in black and white to boot? How could it be any good?

Here’s the part where I eat crow: this version of Fail-Safe is good. Like, really good. It manages to side-step all my concerns to present a gripping and highly involving piece of drama. This fucker just fires on all cylinders, and despite the dated aspects, I found it more exciting and suspenseful than anything in Pirates of the Caribbean 3 or Spiderman 3 combined. Yes, I realize they’re wildly disparate flicks, but I just wanted an opportunity to shit on those two a little.

God, I’ve been waiting for the day to see Dennehy get Hollow Man‘ed.

In fact, the “live” aspect of this piece sells the whole thing. Most audiences today can’t connect viscerally to the impending threat of nuclear destruction. We got problems, but that just ain’t a big one. Shooting this live adds an urgency to the proceedings that helps compensate. Even though we’ve lost the gimmick on DVD, the actors seem charged to the moment regardless, and that sells us on the gravity of the situation. This factor becomes even more impressive given the relative brevity (85 minutes without commercials) of the flick—one of the places this version has a leg-up on the original is in Walter Bernstein’s elegant streamlining of the original script, but that doesn’t give an actor a whole lot of time to make an impression. Yet here, you got some of the most effective usage of typecasting I’ve ever seen. Look at this cast: George Clooney. Norman Lloyd. Don Cheadle. Sam Elliott. Brian Dennehy. James Cromwell. Harvey Keitel. Noah Wylie. All these guys already carry a certain outside baggage with them, which helps to very cleanly and efficiently establish maximum character and motivation in a limited time by encouraging audience’s public perception to fill in the gaps. Special mention must go to Richard Dreyfuss, of all people, who, as the President of the United States, drops all his familiar schlubby quirks and displays a power and a force that I never knew he had; he rocks the shit outta this one. Only Hank Azaria doesn’t register as strongly, and that’s mostly because his in-character voice is hilariously similar to his Charles Bronson imitation from The Simpsons.

Stephen Frears, a talented director in his own right, doesn’t try to compete with Lumet’s nightmarish work on the original, but given the restrictions of live TV, he acquits himself nicely. He and ace cinematographer John Alonzo shoot in crisp, high-contrast black and white and mostly limit themselves to claustrophobic close-ups, which both suit the medium and tone perfectly here, and despite the limited sets and scope, Frears keeps this from feeling too much like a filmed play with some choice camera moves and set-ups here and there. And his choice to play the whole thing with no music? Very nice. The only real misstep, direction-wise, is in his too-obvious integration of stock footage and the clumsy nuclear destruction footage at the very end. They kinda took me out of the movie, but never enough to lessen my overall enjoyment.

"Shit. I know our guy’s getting pwned here, but I actually apprieciate the ironic racial role reversal."

This is a cool experiment from Clooney and Co., but most of all it’s just a damn fine little flick. It’s no Dr. Strangelove, but I actually prefer this Fail-Safe to the original.

I’m an ingrate. Deal with it.

The Package

This sucker looks great—the black and white imagery is flawless. The sound isn’t terribly robust, but again, it’s coming from a basic CBS television source. I freaking love the cover, though. Stark red shots of airplanes and nuclear bomb explosions—it’s fun to be a guy!

You know what the special feature on this is? In a bizarre bit of cross-marketing, you got the Ocean’s Thirteen trailer, the hope being that if you see Clooney in this, you’ll be inspired to see him in the other one because the two flicks have so much in common. Right. I loved Ocean’s Thirteen, but come on! No one who leaves this flick should be thinking, “You know what I’d love to see? Ocean’s Thirteen.” You think that, then you have missed the point entirely, my friend.

I dug the hell out of this flick. What it lacks in relevance, it makes up in intensity and suspense, and I don’t really mind the lack of special features all that much.

The Ocean’s Thirteen trailer is still weirdly included, though.

"You mark my words: I’m going for the cock-punch the next time I see Faraci."

8.5 out of 10