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Catching The Cold War: The Culture of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Posted November 28, 2011 to photo album "Catching The Cold War: The Culture of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy"

The Cold War paranoia that permeates TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY was a focus of a series of fascinating books and films created in post-war Europe and America.

Taking the Temperature of Cold War Culture
The Moral Quagmire: THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD
Potential Fallout: FAIL SAFE
Paranoia Pulp: KISS ME DEADLY
Sex and the Soviet: From Russia with Love
Peace in a Pod: INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS
Cold War Campaign: THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE
At Long Last: POINT OF ORDER
Cold War On The Rocks: TOPAZ
Cold War Meltdown: THE FOURTH PROTOCOL
The Cold War Capsized: THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER
Potential Fallout: FAIL SAFE

Potential Fallout: FAIL SAFE

One of the most chilling films of the Cold War — principally because its concerns over accidental nuclear catastrophe are still relevant — was Sidney Lumet’s 1964 film FAIL SAFE. Based on a novel written before the Cuban Missile Crisis but released in theaters after, Fail Safe stars Henry Fonda as a U.S. President grappling with a terrifying emergency: U.S. fighter plans carrying nuclear weapons have been accidentally dispatched to destroy the Soviet Union. After determining that the error is technological in nature, Fonda and his generals first attempt to convince the Soviet President that the attack was a mistake and to guide his forces in shooting down the incoming planes. When this fails, and a lone pilot makes it to Moscow, in order to prevent a counterattack that would destroy the entirety of the U.S., Fonda himself orders the reciprocal destruction of New York City. The film’s final moments — a series of shots, each ending in freeze frame, of everyday Gotham life — are among the most terrifying of modern cinema.

Overshadowed by the earlier release that year of Stanley Kubrick’s DR. STRANGELOVE, which laced a very similar story with the director’s black humor and mordant worldview, FAIL SAFE was something of a commercial disappointment. But it remains resonant, having been remade in 2000 in a television version starring George Clooney, and featuring prominently in Lucy Walker’s 2010 documentary COUNTDOWN TO ZERO. That’s because while Kubrick’s Major “King” Kong, straddling a nuclear bomb like a bucking bronco as it falls to Russia, was a satirical masterstroke nailing the “cowboy” mentality of some U.S. policy makers, FAIL SAFE actually grappled with policy itself. Throughout the Cold War, the doctrine of “mutual assured destruction,” or “nuclear deterrence,” governed policy makers. Credited to military strategist John von Neumann and articulated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, the logic of mutual assured destruction, or MAD, which argued that certain destruction would fate the instigator of a nuclear attack, both fueled the arms race (each side wanted to match the other in nuclear capability) and also shifted conflict to proxy wars, regional conflicts, and the kind of espionage games dramatized in so many spy movies of the era.