Sunday, April 10, 2011

Fail-Safe

During the next two weeks, we discuss the intersection of public affairs and the entertainment media. The death on Saturday of director Sidney Lumet provides an occasion to discuss a vivid example. In 1964, he directed Fail-Safe, about an accidental American nuclear attack on the USSR. Its basis was a novel of the same name by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler. Burdick was a political scientist familiar with the work of Henry Kissinger, then a professor at Harvard. Kissinger helped inspire one character in the novel. (See Walter Matthau in the clip below.)

In the final sequence, the US and USSR have failed to stop the attack, and the president (Henry Fonda) has to make a difficult decision. The bomber pilot in this sequence, an Air Force general, went to college with the president. The "matador" is a reference to his recurring dream, which we see at the start of the movie.

As you watch the clip, picture the reactions of audiences who had lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis just two years earlier.

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