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Mission: Accomplished

By Belinda Acosta

APRIL 17, 2000:  So that's what good network television can look like. Fail Safe, the pet project of George Clooney, who shepherded it to the small screen, aired live on CBS Sunday night and was a success. At least it was in my living room.

I have no idea what the rest of America thinks, according to the Nielsen ratings, or what critics around the nation have said, as I am writing this just after watching the CBS special and before reading reaction to it from other sources. I skipped the season finale of The Sopranos on HBO to get the "real time" experience of watching Fail Safe. At this writing, I'm dying to know how The Sopranos closed its second season, but after watching Fail Safe, I don't feel as if I blew a Sopranos night. That's a huge compliment.

That's not to say that Fail Safe surpassed the quality of The Sopranos. There's really no comparison between the two. What they do have in common is the successful use of the small screen, given each production's venues. The Sopranos runs commercial-free on a cable network, which distinguishes the tempo and presentation of the drama from that of network television fare. Fail Safe, unable to escape the commercial breaks, used them judiciously, placing them in service to the drama, as opposed to the other way around. What an idea. After all these years of network TV watching, the couch-potato clock can always determine just when the commercial breaks are coming, because the formula is so familiar: Give a couple of runs at the story and hurry off to the commercial. In some cases, the commercials come off as the real highlights of a program. Not so in Fail Safe.

Shooting the two-hour Cold War thriller in black and white captured the period well and avoided what Clooney described as that weird porno-movie-without-the-sex look that shooting live in color would have produced. He picked up that technical tip during the live performance of ER in 1997. (The conceit for that black-and-white episode was that a day in the ER was being captured by an unseen documentary crew.) To my eye, black and white lends a sense of immediacy and realism that color curiously polishes away. Given the circumstances of Fail Safe -- the race to avert the nuclear destruction of the world -- immediacy and realism are good things to shoot for.

The performances were uniformly strong, particularly from Richard Dreyfuss, who managed not to devour the scenery as the president of the United States, and from Noah Wyle (ER) as a fastidious translator. Considering that the performance was live, the camera work was energetic, at times pulling viewers into a character's lap. There were moments that I marveled there weren't miscues or "meltdowns" -- as some mean-spirited pre-production publicity predicted.

There were some disappointments, however. The stock footage of aircraft diving into the ocean, missile launches, and the like, looked out of place and sometimes laughable in what was otherwise a well-crafted production.

Unlike Clooney, I wasn't enthralled by the story, which was adapted for television based on the original (hyphenated) feature film, 1964's Fail-Safe. Perhaps too much cynicism has grown between the Cold War and the present. After all, the technology has changed dramatically. In Fail Safe, it takes the entire length of the production for the misguided bomber to make its way to its Moscow target. During this time, there are ruminations on man's ability to destroy himself and everything he holds dear, as well as the discovery that those "human calculating machines," as Hank Azaria's character calls the Russians, are indeed human. Today, the destruction of the world would take the push of a button and a matter of minutes. No one would know what hit them.

As a critique of the Cold War frenzy and the enormous power of a few men, I prefer Fail-Safe's feature-film cousin, also released in 1964, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. In fact, I found myself hoping for Colonel "Bat" Guano, General Turgidson, Major "King" Kong, and Dr. Strangelove himself to bring some levity to the CBS production, which was hermetically sealed from humor. But by the end, with the piercing ring of the dead telephone transmission that signaled the destruction of Moscow, all thoughts of Dr. Strangelove had vanished. Fail Safe had hit its mark.

Depending on the success of Fail Safe, and a live production of On Golden Pond starring Julie Andrews later in the year, TV exec Les Moonves says that CBS may plan a live drama special every year. The production costs are high, but the "risky" productions "appeal to well-known actors who ordinarily shun conventional TV," Moonves said in a New York Times interview.

But why limit these live productions to old war horses? Why not infuse some more contemporary work, or even some original work written especially for a live television performance? If the diversity issue is still of importance to the network, this would be a great opportunity to showcase themes, actors, and stories from a variety of cultures. Placing the marvelously understated Don Cheadle in a small and fairly thankless supporting role as co-pilot to Clooney's Colonel Grady does little to convince me that CBS has any real interest in expanding their cultural palette, so to speak. Is CBS, or any of the other networks for that matter, willing to take that kind of risk?

Television is not an inherently inferior medium. On the contrary, when the unique qualities of the medium are exploited, television shines. Like HBO's The Sopranos, the production team of Fail Safe made television look like no other medium, and for a couple of hours, a sense of its true artistry prevailed.


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