Last night I watched Fail-Safe, the movie. It is the third of the early 1960s movies about World War III which I have watched this month and it’s hard on the heels of the books Doomsday Men: The Real Dr. Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon and The Making of the Atomic Bomb which I read last month. It is a black sort of morbid fun doing so much noir in one brief dollop, but I have been sleeping well so I suppose I have made my personal psychological adjustments to the morbidity of mortality.
So what’s my take home message?
Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb – is the most fun film of this group. It is a film which you can watch every ten years or so with great enjoyment and it has a sort of abstract calming effect because of the joyous black comedy tonality. It is bizarre enough that you never lose sight of the fact that it is a comedy, but also it is close enough to reality to be meaningful and thought provoking.
All fiction, in fact all literature including non-fiction must demand a willing suspension of some degree of disbelief before the author can make the necessary abstractions to make his case. Most science fiction stories make absurd reality assumptions and then make a weird book, or movie or other production with the silly distortions built in. But this is not the case with any of these three movies. Those other poorly founded media madnesses end up being silly books, and movies and they ultimately load up the viewer’s brain with all sorts of mental crap which fouls up their daily life. I see the function of literature, etc. as methods for highlighting some typical problems of real life in such a way that you can see them more clearly, and then modify your behavior to function in your real life more effectively. These three movies all succeed in doing that.
Fail-Safe – makes the greatest effort to cover all of the various intellectual arguments at the various turning points in an unfolding crisis of relatively realistic normal people, playing their various roles in life, trying to cope with a mechanical malfunction which is about to precipitate WW III. The movie becomes tedious and overly complex for everyone who has never had a responsible role in this kind of decision making. But, for those of us who have, it becomes an anxiety provoking white knuckle, “oh shit, I knew those kinds of people, what if I had been there”, kind of thing. Probably the safeguards to prevent that type of catastrophe are better now than in the 60s, at least with the major powers but there are more nuclear powers now, and it is doubtful if all of them have sophisticated safeguards on all of their weapons. Then there is the pure randomness of tricky situations colliding and the mathematical coin flipping sort of thing coming up with with twenty tails in a row and wiping you out. And then it becomes more like the following movie.
On the Beach – is long and tedious and yet more tedious, with a superabundance of off subject scrolling through people’s lives who are sliding into oblivion. The people are all personally marginal to the reasons for the catastrophe. The unseen cloud is like a giant Monty Python foot which is coming in from above, from off screen. It is all powerful and it is slowly, tediously crunching down upon them all. It is morbidly comic, even to them, but all the same they are doomed. They see it coming, they feel it coming, they are slowly having their life squished out of them and they are absolutely helpless to do anything about it. Ultimately, this is not a portrait of the doomsday bomb this is a portrait of normal everyday life. We all know it. We like to put those morbid facts into an abstract distant time and place. Like, it can’t happen here, well probably won’t happen now, kind of thing, so we can feel better in the present moment and live our lives without terror. Well, tomorrow is Superbowl Sunday – so everything is just peaches and cream.