The nuclear politics of the Cold War inspired numerous films dealing with the life–and–death, cat–and–mouse maneuverings of the two great world powers, but none was so genuinely chilling as Fail–Safe. Based on the best–selling novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, Sidney Lumet’s film tells the story of a squadron of American jet bombers on a routine reconnaissance flight that, due to a computer malfunction, receives an irrevocable order to drop its nuclear payload on Moscow. Every effort by U.S. commanders, including a verbal order to the pilot from the president himself, as well as air and ground attacks by both American and Soviet forces, fails to stop the planes. The final outcome, in which both the Soviet capital and New York City are obliterated, is the fulfillment of humanity’s worst nightmare. The film, an utterly dark cautionary tale about the necessity of developing procedures to forestall this sort of outcome, demonstrates how, despite their best intentions, politicians, professional soldiers, and academic experts are as helpless as anyone else in the face of their “foolproof” weapons systems.
Publication excerpt from In Still Moving: The Film and Media Collections of the Museum of Modern Art by Steven Higgins, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2006, p. 240.