THE BLOG
10/19/2014 12:10 am ET Updated Oct 27, 2014

Mad About the '60s... Fearful Fail-Safes , Then and Now

(Note: This is one in a series of occasional pieces in the run-up to the series finale of 'Mad Men' with cultural relevance to the period of the show and today.)

Thanks to the Camelot myth, the popular sense of the early 1960s is that it was mostly a time of light and celebration which came to an abrupt end with the November 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. But the reality, as most Mad Men viewers know, is much more complex.

Indeed, the symbol of all that optimism, avatar of the New Frontier, JFK himself -- in addition to boosting the nascent James Bond franchise by naming From Russia With Love one of his 10 favorite books -- encouraged a cinema focused on dark, almost paranoid musings about America. In these films, most of which did not appear until 1964, concerns about the rise of fascism in America join a deep and pervasive angst about the nuclear age to produce films that make much of the "revolutionary" New Hollywood of the 1970s look positively sunny.


Henry Fonda played the unnamed president, clearly based on JFK in the novel by Eugene Burdock and Harvey Wheeler, in Fail-Safe.

I wrote about the 50th anniversary of one of those films, The Best Man, last week. I'll write some more about the first of these films, the only one to appear before JFK was assassinated, 1962's classic The Manchurian Candidate, which starred JFK pal Frank Sinatra, when I write about the 50th anniversary of the John Frankenheimer-directed Seven Days In May. (Frankenheimer went on to make TV ads for Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign. RFK was the director's Malibu houseguest when he was assassinated in LA right after winning the California presidential primary.)

This is also the 50th anniversary of Fail-Safe, which like The Best Man stars JFK friend Henry Fonda. Based on a best-selling novel which Kennedy read and recommended to Fonda, Fail-Safe is a tense thriller about nuclear war. Since it was remade as a star-studded live 2000 television event, some spoilers follow.

During an alert, a computer malfunction causes a flight of American bombers sorting near their jumping-off point for an attack on the Soviet Union to fly past their "fail-safe" point, the point at which they cannot be recalled. While the president military leaders try nonetheless to do just that, examining their options, a prominent intellectual who consults with the Pentagon on geopolitics and nuclear war strategies argues that this disaster is really an opportunity. Enough is enough with the never-ending tension of the Cold War. This is America's opportunity to defeat the Soviet Union once and for all. The cost will be high, but sustainable. "History demands it," intones the intellectual, based on a '60s strategy guru archetype which included Herman Kahn and Henry Kissinger.

In The Best Man, Fonda plays a cross between Adlai Stevenson and Kennedy, a combination very reminiscent of a more contemporary figure, Gary Hart. In Fail-Safe, though he looks and sounds more like Hart, he isn't so much reminiscent of the man who may well have been his generation's best shot at the White House as he is of JFK himself. Which is not surprising, since the character in the novel is written as a clearcut Kennedy analogue, right down to the famously glamorous and cosmopolitan first lady visiting New York City during the sudden crisis. (An early season Mad Men episode infamously divided beautiful women into two archetypes, "Jackies" and "Marilyns.")

The tension keeps ratcheting up, with Fonda's unnamed president down in the bunker with his young translator, a very effective pre-J.R. Ewing Larry Hagman, on the hotline to Moscow. Soviet optimism about shooting down a flight of high-speed American bombers -- not B-52s but the coldly sleek and menacing B-58, highly cinematic but in reality a troublesome aircraft despite being as fast as any Soviet fighter -- fades and Fonda has some tough decisions to make. He sends American fighters on after-burners to try to catch the B-58s and shoot them down. But they fail to catch the bombers, which are more than twice as fast as the B-52s. Running out of fuel, the fighters fall into the icy sea where there is no rescue for the pilots. He orders the Air Force to cooperate with the Soviets in shooting down our own planes. That gets a decidedly mixed reaction, but the order is carried out.

Meanwhile, they keep trying to recall the planes. But the pilots, following orders, ignore the famously impersonated president (Fonda doesn't do JFK, just Fonda) as well as the pleas of loved ones.

Even with American help, the remaining B-58s penetrate deeper and deeper into Russia. Finally only one remains, but it's closing on Moscow. They try a spectacular last-ditch move to destroy the plane. It fails.


Walter Matthau's Professor Walter Groteschele argues the winnable nuclear war theory in Fail-Safe.

With "What will we say to the dead?" as his rejoinder to the idea of pushing forward a full-scale nuclear attack, Fonda has only a few options left. Will the Soviets accept an apology and reparations? Or will a commensurate sacrifice be required?

Anticipating the potential destruction of Moscow, the president has already ordered a B-58 piloted by an old classmate to orbit over New York City, where the first lady is visiting ...

Fonda himself had an intriguing history with regard to nuclear war. As he recounted it to me, as a Navy air combat intelligence officer in World War II, Fonda took part in the pre-flight briefings of the B-29 crew which nuked Hiroshima. He didn't know at the time precisely what the weapon was, only that it was very special and very powerful.

If Fail-Safe seems overwrought, it really wasn't in 1964. The country had just experienced the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. (The JFK-promoted Fail-Safe was produced in the spring of 1963.) The world came very close to a nuclear war in the Cuban Missile Crisis, when most of Kennedy's military advisors urged an attack on Cuba after the discovery of Soviet nuclear missiles there.

I remember that time as a small child. Most thought the end could be very near back then because it was. A great early season finale of Mad Men set during the crisis ably depicted the mood. (In that episode, the much cheated-upon Betty Draper breaks down and has sex with a stranger in the back room of a Manhattan bar, to the great disapproval of the blue nose faction of the show's fandom.)

So great was the angst about the nuclear age during the epic stand-off with the Soviet Union that Fail-Safe is only one of two films with a similar plot to appear in 1964. The other is the legendary Dr. Strangelove, a wild black comedy starring Peter Sellers in three roles.

But that was a very different time, wasn't it? We aren't that afraid today, are we?

Well, much of the country, not understanding the actual plot of the movie, imagined Barack Obama to be a "Manchurian Candidate." And there's rampant fear-mongering all over the media. Has our fail-safe point been breached on Ebola? Or on Isis?

The fear factor of 9/11 was used to generate George W. Bush's invasion of 2003 and Barack Obama's Afghanistan surge of 2009. Each of those two misadventures carried a huge opportunity cost. Think a manned mission to Mars, a doubling of our aircraft carriers, and new social and environmental programs. Basically a strong, compassionate, and future-oriented new face for America. Twice over. Lost to fear-based decision-making.

For the threat of jihadist networks to America, while real, is certainly less than that of the truly fearsome forces of the Soviet Union. Yet here we are, continuing to blunder into what Obama's very much ex-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta calls a potential "30-years war."

Given the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK was clearly very serious about a real threat of nuclear war. How serious was he about a fascist takeover from within?

Let's get to that in discussing the 50th anniversary of yet another film in which he wanted Henry Fonda to play the president. Seven Days In May.

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