Fail Safe dramatizes cold war anxieties about the meaning of automation -- i.e., the historic shift in which human activity involving judgment and decision was increasingly delegated to machine processes. Reviewers interpreted the idea of nuclear war triggered by a mechanical error in the automated warning and communications systems of the American strategic forces as the ultimate consequence of mechanization.
Reviews of the Novel
The novel Fail Safe , written by two political science professors, Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, was published the same month as the Cuban Missile Crisis, October 1962. It was an immediate bestseller and stayed at the top of the New York Times top ten list for several months. The plot is driven by a series of compounding accidents in the electronic systems of Strategic Air Command that resulted in an irrevocable order to bomb Moscow. In the preface to their novel, authors Burdick and Wheeler argue that given the increasing complexity of the technical systems that comprise American military capability, the laws of probability made the likelihood of accidental war by mechanical error inevitable. This claim and the specific details of their plot opened a heated controversy. Most critics of the novel and film addressed the question: if the accident described in Fail Safe was improbable, then should the popular book be condemned?
An English Literature professor writing for Commonweal interpreted Fail Safe as the contemporary version of the Gothic novel of terror. "The overkill tale," remarked Philip Deasy, "[is] a novel of terror proper to our time. The Bomb is our current monster, modern man's supreme machine creation." However appealing was the novel's melancholy and fear, and pertinent to the times, Burdick and Wheeler's irresponsibility in exaggerating the risks of accidental war quashed the book's merit. "Nothing elevated can come from bad novels," he concluded, "that purport to be the truth." (The Commonweal, 3-8-63)
While Fail-Safe appeared to be crammed with information, critics argued that the authors committed important mistakes that reflected their basic technical ignorance. The chief error of the plot was the reversal of the actual "fail-safe" or command procedure for bombers on red alert to proceed towards their target. In the novel and film, a breakdown in the communication system renders an irrevocable "go ahead" command transmitted by electronic message, whereas in practice the positive command would have been transmitted by a coded voice message, verified in several stages and by several members of the crew. Thus, in the actual "fail-safe" control, if a breakdown in the communication system would have happened, no authorized command could have been effected.
The most famous review of Fail Safe's plot fallacies was written by the philosopher Sidney Hook. Hook argued that Fail Safe's dramatization of the dangers of automated warning and command systems rendered it "an emotionally surcharged political tract" that seemed to argue for unilateral disarmament. The plot relied on so many improbabilities that while accidental war appeared to be plausible to the uninformed reader, it transcended "the sober limits of scientific credibility." The result was "intellectually scandalous." While no system was foolproof, human error was a more likely cause of accidental war than machine breakdown. In fact, he remarked that for such momentous events, perhaps it would be safer to rely on technology than fallible human decision. By distorting the facts of the actual command procedures of the American nuclear forces, Fail Safe fomented hysteria. Hook remarked that it was morally and intellectually irresponsible "to exaggerate the risks involved in the defense of freedom to a degree that dwarfs" the seriousness and magnitude of the cold war struggle. (New Leader, 12-10-62)
Similarly, Jack Wilson of The New Republic chastised Burdick and Wheeler for gross negligence in putting one over on their audience: "We are asked to believe, by writers who… haven't done their homework, that the world is at the mercy of a system so carelessly designed and operated that it can reverse itself without being detected and set off an attack by saying yes when it means no." (The New Republic, 11/3/62) "By purporting to be knowledgeable," echoed a Time column, "Fail Safe plays on the deepest fears of humanity. ...[It] is filled with falsities and distortions and as such is not only a poor book, but a cruel one." (Time, 12-18-63)
The novel's defenders countered that the technical errors in the plot disclosed a larger truth regarding automation. For example, Father Harold Gardiner construed Fail Safe as a "gauge of the moral flabbiness and deviation from bedrock principle that has brought today's man to the point where he is no longer master of his environment." (America, 11-10-62) Fear of automation ran very deep through American society. Norman Cousins commended the book for illustrating the horror in which "the irrational can become supreme in human destiny." By ceding decision to "the electronic offspring" of human intelligence, the fascination with technology ends in "the collapse of human thought." With "the total absence of the clarifying power of conscience," he wrote, "the only genuine protection of human life" is eclipsed. (Saturday Review, 10-20-62)
The Nation's reviewer condemned the novel's plot and characterization for "falsifying or simplifying human experience," however the possibility of accidental war was in itself a potent problem. The main problem with the novel was that it was ultimately reassuring, making "us believe that … our leaders … can be depended upon to extricate us." On the contrary, the reviewer wrote sternly, "there is no evidence that God has ever spared man the fruits of his folly and none that a people can dare to delegate judgment to its leaders." (The Nation, 11-3-62)
A number of movie reviews elaborated themes already anatomized in the reception of the novel. For example, Richard Hodgens scoffed at the film's inflated humanist message driving its anti-automation plot-line. "The only idea behind it is… while machines that break down do not work, (i.e. the FailSafe system breaks down,) it - the abstract Machine, that is, the BOMB, does work." The thought defied common sense. "The film suggests that people are becoming mechanical (because the pilot follows his training) and argues that to be against the machine is to be for Man. That is, People are good, (Russians are people too… and that machines are bad.) He concluded, "Like the novel, the film is a work distinguished more by willful stupidity than by art." (National Review, 11-17-64)
Brendan Gill, the film critic of the New Yorker, who praised Fail Safe for its "scrupulous plausibility ... and technical detail" ended a laudatory review with a note of concern about the veracity of its plot. "Its truth or falsity matters. These are hard times in which a successful but unimportant thriller, whose chief purpose, after all, is to deceive, is expected to acknowledge that certain deceptions are impermissible." (New Yorker, 10-10-64)
Liberal reviewers absolved Burdick and Wheeler on behalf of the larger themes of their story. While she recognized the "singularly ill-explained and unconvincing" plot device of the Fail-Safe mechanism, Moira Walsh offered a plausible reading of the movie's anti-automation message. "Defenders of the film would probably say the accident's lack of adequate explanation is deliberate; that no matter how many safeguards are built into our military push-button systems, they have become so complicated and fast-moving and awesome in their consequences that something crucial is eventually bound to go wrong." (America, 10-17-64)
Stanley Kauffmann protested against the focus on technical error in Fail Safe's plot. He remarked, "The objection that it could not happen is about as germane here as it would be if applied to Gulliver's Travels." Whether a condenser in an electronic circuit at SAC would ever malfunction was irrelevant. The film's truth was a meditation on the imperfect control human decision exercises over complex technical systems. "The real trouble is that men are in control: of increasingly large mechanisms without correspondingly developed judgment and morality." (New Republic, 9-12-64)
Father John McLaughlin, a cinema professor and Jesuit, also defended the "dramatic deception" of the plot device. "The premises are valid and may be theatrically exploited to reveal a larger truth." By dramatizing our worst fears, the film "transforms anxiety into valid, searching, enlightened concern." In contrast to critics who regarded the film's message as implicitly pacifist, he thought its focal point was the exercise of political responsibility. The film did not denigrate the policy of nuclear deterrence, but presented its imperfections, which could not be remedied by ever-more complex technology. Rather, imperfection lay in "human judgment and value structure."
McLaughlin recognized the uniquely engrossing medium of film for dramatizing the abstractions of the danger of automation. "This film is an exercise in human credibility. It demonstrated the incredible power of the camera to cajole the suspension of disbelief. … Fail Safe reveals the unique proof of cinematography… It was unconvincing as a book, but its cinema techniques …woo consent to the illusion on which the film's larger truth and its therapy depended." (Catholic World, 12-64)
Not everyone was beguiled by Fail Safe's cinematography and direction. David Slavitt of Newsweek found nothing good in it. He criticized the acting, "Henry Fond is the best thing in the movie. Everybody else is hopeless or helpless." He typified the script as "simply and unashamedly a melodrama" whose genre precedent was the murder mystery, the formulaic satisfactions of which were "the only possible justification for the thrill Fail Safe provides." He slighted the director's concept for the film, "Lumet is simply not equal to the demands of think about the unthinkable. He retreats to commonplace niceties." In short, Fail Safe fell grievously short of the compelling demands of popular art to "hint to anyone how to behave, how to think, how to be" in a world which could be blown to smithereens at any moment. (Newsweek, 10-12-64)
Vogue's Henry Geldzahler was nastily dismissive. Fail Safe's production values were "cheap, set poor," "stylistic but faulty technically," and "unreal". He complained that the technical explanations of the failsafe mechanisms were so much "boring… detail that comes over more as information than as a drama." Setting aside the gender bias of a film review which would surely scant technical detail for its female audience, Geldzahler construed the film as a somnolent attempt to dramatize the nuclear predicament. "Fail Safe is a problem picture without vitality. It is Dr. Strangelove without passion, anger, or a sense of the absurd. It is an inadvertently matter of fact film about the possibility of total annihilation; yet it is a film without compassion, terror, or even suspense." (Vogue, 10-15-64)
(As an index of the radically different social strata and tastes of these magazine's audiences, Richard Oulahan of Life praised Fail Safe in directly contrary terms. "The picture is so stylishly produced, so well-acted, and so loaded with suspense that millions of moviegoers will probably believe it all could happen this way." (Life, 10-30-64))