Friday, January 19, 2018

This is Not a Test: Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove

Part of my mind these days is deep in the mud, in sympathy for those unfortunate folks in Montecito, California who’ve endured both fire and rain. (I doubt many of them are looking forward to seeing the film Mudbound.) And another part is frankly terrified by what almost happened in Hawaii, triggered by a false ballistic missile alarm. No harm was ultimately done, except for a lot of jangled nerves among those island-dwellers mistakenly alerted by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency. But in the wake of this very human error—not to mention the currently strained relations between the U.S. and nuclear rogue state North Korea—NPR broadcast an interview that made my skin crawl.

The interview was with William Perry, who for three years served as Secretary of Defense in the Clinton White House. In 2013 he founded the William J. Perry Project, a non-profit effort to spread the word about the dangers posed by nuclear weapons. Perry clearly knows whereof he speaks. During his White House tenure, he was aware of three instances in which a small human error could easily have touched off World War III. In one case, he accidentally uploaded test software in such a way that it seemed like an announcement of a genuine nuclear attack. Fortunately, an alert official caught the error and reversed it without bringing it to the attention of the U.S. president, who’d theoretically have about 5 minutes to decide on a retaliatory missile strike. In Perry’s era, something similar happened in Russia, but the officer in charge was severely reprimanded for avoiding the involvement of the Russian leader. As Perry makes clear, we’re all too vulnerable to the possibility of a spur-of-the moment nuclear decision made by a single individual, one who might not be willing to accept the possibility that an announced enemy missile strike is actually a careless mistake. 

Back in 1964—a nervous time that I remember well—not one but two movies dramatized how the Cold War might heat up as the result of an accidental nuclear strike. Fail-Safe, a thriller based on a popular novel, explored what would happen if a U.S. bomber were accidentally ordered to drop a nuclear warhead on Moscow. This serious and somber film, directed by the great Sidney Lumet, featured an all-star cast, including Henry Fonda as the President of the United States. Advertising posters featured an ominous line: “Fail-Safe will have you sitting on the brink of eternity!”

This was a time when Cold War paranoia was highly visible on movie screens. Along with Fail-Safe, 1964 saw the release of John Frankenheimer’s equally starry Seven Days in May (“United States military leaders plot to overthrow the President because he supports a nuclear disarmament treaty and they fear a Soviet sneak attack.”) But a third 1964 film approached the threat of nuclear disaster in an entirely different spirit. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was loosely based on a British thriller called Red Alert (aka Two Hours to Doom). The British novel was dead serious in positing that a U.S. Air Force general, a victim of paranoid delusions,  might unleash the first strike in World War III. But, given the appearance in that same year of grim films like Fail-Safe, writer-director Stanley Kubrick wanted to try something completely different.  That’s why Dr. Strangelove shocked the American public by turning the threat of nuclear war into outrageous black comedy. 

Dr. Strangelove dared to make fun of scientists, generals, nuclear weapons, and the U.S. president himself. Moviegoing has never been the same since.   

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