MineralMovies [ep .6]: Analysis of Fail Safe (1964) di Sidney Lumet

Maybe people still couldn’t get used to the idea of killing civilians. Take that up with the civilians of London, Hamburg, Dresden or Tokyo… killed by the thousands in bombing raids. I omit Hiroshima and Nagasaki… since those actions belong more properly to World War III… than World War II.

Evil has not always existed, neither as a metaphysical substance nor as a simple negative reflection of human actions. Evil has a precise date of birth and its birth was scientifically induced in compliance with the fundamental physical laws of the Universe. Evil’s birth certificate reads: Socorro, New Mexico, July 16, 1945. The first nuclear explosion in history.

David Lynch talks about this in the eighth episode of the third season of Twin Peaks, Part 8, with a black and white flashback that would seem to show the origin of the mysterious BOB, the incarnation of evil in the series, as a direct consequence of the Atomic Test Trinity, part of Oppenheimer’s Manhattan Project. A disgusting insectoid crawls away from the blast site and then parasitizes an unsuspecting young girl, starting the causal chain that will lead to the human suffering of the series’ protagonists decades later.

The insectoid has similarities to nucleomitophobia, the suffocating pathological fear of a possible nuclear conflict: both were born together with the atomic bomb and both have an unhealthy predilection for children and adolescents. If we consider it an endemic disease, we can say that the peak of infections was reached in October 1962, when the Cuban Missile Crisis taught the whole world that the end of mankind is just a few political decisions away.

An unsurprising consequence of the terror epidemic was the proliferation of works on the nuclear apocalypse theme, with the curious case of two extremely similar and practically contemporary films, taken from two novels which were themselves accused of plagiarism: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Stanley Kubrick and Fail Safe by Sidney Lumet.

Both are shot in black and white; both take place in very few claustrophobic locations a command center, the War Room and the cockpit of a bomber; both are scenically dominated by the character of a controversial scientist of Germanic origins, Doctors Strangelove and Groeteschele; in both the two major powers on Earth are at the mercy of technical problems and decision-making bottlenecks; both movies end in the deaths of millions.

In 2004 Woody Allen directs the movie Melinda and Melinda, in which the same story is told first as a drama and then as a comedy, reflecting on how necessarily close the two opposites must be to generate art: and this is exactly what happens in 1964 with these two specular films, similar in everything except the tone, intended to compose a diptych that is only apparently contradictory.

In fact, the terror for the Bomb is accompanied by a morbid obsession for this instrument so insanely powerful that it doesn’t even seem real, and its promise of death is paradoxically accompanied by that of freedom. Faced with the intricate political blackmail, the uncertainty of the pesky wars fought by proxy, the infinite complications of the global economic system, it is inevitable that the red total RESET button of atomic warfare has a charm as forbidden as it is powerful. This is worth millions of deaths, the certainty of the survival of one’s culture and lifestyle, says Dr. Groeteschele in Lumet’s film. In front of a Gordian knot there is always a pseudo-Alexander who thinks of cutting it once and for all, a theme around which the plot of Watchmen by Alan Moore from 1987 is built, a comic in which a vain sacrifice of innocent blood by a mad visionary tries to appease the demon of Total War, fearing the existence of an even greater common enemy.

Fail Safe with its title it introduces another element inextricably linked to the concept of nuclear war: it is not only human beings who have their finger on the trigger, but more or less complex IT and bureaucratic systems which, once created, become agents of war in all respects . Russia had and probably still has a fully automated system, the so-called Perimetr (Dead hand for the NATO) able once activated to proceed with the launch of all warheads even if Russia was already destroyed (or at least its leaders), and similar procedures also exist in the USA. Even without reaching these extreme cases, decisions regarding nuclear attacks are subordinated to the data sent constantly by the most disparate technologies, each of which can make mistakes, as happened in 1983 to the Russian system which fortunately was monitored at that time by the calm Stanislav Petrov. Without him something even more tragic and absurd than the movies probably would have happened.

On paper, Mutual Assured Destruction prevents a very large-scale conflict, allowing only small dirty wars around the less fortunate countries: but even if we pretend that this was ethically acceptable, where would be the gain if that final conflict was inevitable anyway? On the contrary, it would be additional and useless suffering. The paradoxical exchange that takes place in Lumet’s film between Moscow and New York is the exemplification of this concept, a tangled logic that impresses the viewer in all its madness yet lucid rationality. The total flaw in human logic already identified by Aristotle with his syllogisms almost puts the possibility of free will in doubt: in the film, the Russian and American leaders skim off their own sick cells to arrive at the ethically correct and logically valid collaboration, but it is too late, it was always too late. Once the wrong premises have entered the chain of syllogisms, it is impossible to get any meaninigful result except in an empty formality. The question is not that there is the right man or the right machine to monitor the possibility of the use of nuclear weapons, but the existence regardless of this possibility.

What appears to be a bizarre thought experiment, i.e. the senseless destruction of two cities in the film to avoid war, is simply our daily reality in which more or less great tributes are constantly offered to this sleeping monster, sometimes invoked as a threat, sometimes as a blessing.

The world nuclear arsenal is a huge Chekhov pistol present on the stage: if it is there, it is because sooner or later it will shoot.

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