This was a remake of Fail-Safe conducted for tv. The remake came with the novelty of being filmed as a live broadcast. Possibly the filmmakers were thinking of something akin to Orson Welles War of the Worlds (1938) radio broadcast, although more likely executive producer and star George Clooney was inspired by ER (1994-2009), the tv series where Clooney had first come to fame, which had similarly broadcast one of its episodes live. A number of other shows around the same time The Bill, Coronation Street, Will and Grace, The Drew Carey Show, The West Wing and the remake of The Quatermass Experiment (2005) also attempted the novelty of episodes that were broadcast live. The Fail-Safe remake was conducted by British director Stephen Frears who has also made celebrated films such as Dangerous Liaisons (1988), Mary Reilly (1996), High-Fidelity (2000), Dirty Pretty Things (2002) and The Queen (2006).
Fail Safe also came out the same year as the tv remake of another classic of the Cold War era nuclear anxiety the mini-series of On the Beach (2000), which remade On the Beach (1959), the film that started the genre of grimly serious nuclear war films off. What is noticeable about both the On the Beach and Fail Safe remakes is that they come divorced from the 1960s era that gave the originals their stark sense of immediacy. On the Beach 2000 turned the end of the world into a lush, sweeping romantic drama. Fail Safe 2000 at least sets the remake in the same year that the original came out 1964 as well as shoots the show in black-and-white as did the original. However, in watching Fail Safe 2000 there is no longer the sense that we are the in the midst of a nightmare that could have been ripped from the headlines, as you had in watching the original, rather that this has been replaced by a sense of nostalgia that we are looking back at a bygone era that never came to pass.
The screenplay for Fail Safe 2000 is credited to the same Walter Bernstein that wrote the original. One is not familiar with the original on a line for line basis enough to be able to say to what extent Fail Safe 2000 has used exactly the same script or not. Certainly, there are some minor changes between the two versions a brief addition that shows the Presidents wife is in New York City as the bomb is dropped and the removal of a scene where Groeteschele picks up a woman at a party. The emphasis is also slightly different. Rather than the madness of Groetescheles speeches, we now get Harvey Keitel going on about the madness of the concept of a winnable nuclear war. There also seems to be more emphasis on the scenes where the US military grudgingly decide to trust the Russians. Stephen Frears also makes an effort to humanise the characters that tended to act as boilerplate mouthpieces for speeches in the original. Especially good in this regard are the scenes with Brian Dennehy and the Russian general saying how they nearly met, or John Diehls colonel calling his mother to say goodbye but she being too busy watching a Red Sox game.
Even though one is seeing a recorded version of the film rather than the original live broadcast, Fail Safe 2000 is well mounted. What works to the benefit of a live broadcast is the fact that the original takes place between only four locations the military conference room, the Air Force command centre, The Presidents communication bunker and the interior of the bomber cockpit. Stephen Frears keeps the show constantly moving back and forward between these locations or via the use of radio/telephone conversations between parties. The show works with far more of a suspenseful drive than one might have thought a live drama capable of doing. The scenes at Strategic Air Command and with the President on the telephone are particularly well sustained. There are some slightly spotty camera changes during the scenes in the conference room but the show is so seamlessly conducted you would not guess it was a live drama without knowing that it was.
Considering the nature of the live broadcast, Stephen Frears gets some expert performances from all of the actors. In the Presidential bunker scenes, Richard Dreyfuss and Noah Wyle do a great job of reacting to non-present events. Hank Azaria, the voice of Moe, Apu and Chief Wiggum in The Simpsons (1989 ), gives a fine cold, clipped performance as Groeteschele. Stephen Frears does a marvellous job of highlighting his actors, in depicting the way the tension moves across the face of Richard Dreyfuss President or the indecision that plays across George Clooneys pilot when he hears his sons voice on the radio. The fact that all of the actors are playing live and without the benefit for retakes makes these performances all the more exceptional.
In an attempt to make the films message relevant today, Fail Safe 2000 ends on a listing of all the countries that have nuclear weapons. Some of these claims are a little dubious Israel has never openly confirmed that it does, while subsequent real world events have shown that at the time Fail Safe 2000 was made it was very unlikely that North Korea had any nuclear capacity. Nevertheless, Fail Safe makes a relevant point that the nuclear threat of the original film is still a very present one.