<I>Fail Safe </I>No Bomb

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Moscow and New York City took it on the chin as a live TV performance of Fail Safe dramatized the horrors of nuclear war and gave viewers a punch in the gut.


A dream project of George Clooney, who has long admired the 1964 movie version, this Fail Safe revival provided a searing return to the Cold War era and, at the same time, a bracing reprise of TV's long-ago age of live drama.

Live! "We were panicked," Clooney confessed later at the cast party. "We hadn't done one really smooth rehearsal. I thought we were dead."

Meanwhile, the Sunday night broadcast offered a chilling reminder of today's ever-increasing nuclear threat. (As a coda, the program cited nine countries currently with nuclear capabilities - not just the two superpowers of a simpler past.)

In short, Fail Safe was, as advertised, truly an event.

To underline the starkness of the subject (and perhaps honor the pre-color days when live TV thrived), the CBS production was in black-and-white, as was the original film. And it aired in a "letter box" format (black strips above and below the picture) to heighten the documentary effect.

Airing 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. ET from Warner Bros. studios in Burbank, Calif. (with a taped repeat for West Coast viewers), the program was directed by Stephen Frears and starred, among others, Brian Dennehy, Harvey Keitel, Sam Elliott, Hank Azaria, Noah Wyle, Don Cheadle, Richard Dreyfuss and Clooney.

The razor-sharp teleplay, like the film's screenplay four decades ago, was written by Walter Bernstein.

Based on the Harvey Wheeler-Eugene Burdick novel of the same name, the TV Fail Safe depicted the irrevocable outcome after a U.S. bomber is erroneously dispatched to drop a nuclear warhead on Moscow.

It's the sort of thing that just couldn't happen.

"We've got checks upon checks," Gen. Bogan (Dennehy) assures Congressman Raskob (Elliott) early on, in the cavernous War Room in Omaha, Neb. "We've got fail-safe procedures. We bypass human error."

Well...by the end, Moscow has been wiped off the map by the U.S., and, to forestall Russia's all-out retaliation, the U.S. sacrifices New York as a sort of peace offering.

As in the film, the signal that Moscow is gone reaches the audience as a shrieking sound: the ambassador's phone melting from the heat of the fireball. A few minutes later the other shoe (and 20-megaton bomb) drops and a street scene in Manhattan bleaches out into nothingness.

It was the climax to suspense mounting in a surefire way: The danger was kept off-screen, to be painfully shared in the minds of the characters and the audience.

The action - which was mostly tense talk - jockeyed between the Omaha War Room, the Washington War Room, the bomber (piloted by Clooney and Cheadle) and the White House bunker occupied by the President, negotiating by phone with a translator (Wle) at his side.

With the exception of Dreyfuss, more snippy than commanding as the President, the acting was solid.

Especially good were Dennehy, Elliott, Keitel as Gen. Black (handed the unenviable duty of bombing New York), and especially Azaria as the think-tank professor arguing that the U.S. attack was a blessing in disguise.

Despite Clooney's pre-broadcast anxiety, gaffes were admirably few: a handful of missed audio cues, along with a flubbed credit in the brief introduction by "host" Walter Cronkite. Clooney said Cronkite later joked, "I got you started on the right foot."

"I think we did OK," Dennehy said after the broadcast, adding, "I'm not gonna watch it. I'm superstitious."

But CBS president Les Moonves was ecstatic. "Boy, am I proud!" he exclaimed. "George did it!"

An apt summation. Clooney's production of Fail Safe resonated with -history both TV's and a dangerous world's - while staying meaningfully rooted in the present. It was a thrilling two hours for a viewer to have shared with the players on the screen.

By Frazier Moore, AP Television Writer
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