Tag: Larry Hagman

Fail Safe (1964)

Henry Fonda desperately tries to avert nuclear war in Fail Safe

Director: Sidney Lumet

Cast: Henry Fonda (The President), Dan O’Herlihy (Brigadier General Warren Black), Walter Matthau (Professor Groeteschele), Frank Overton (General Bogan), Fritz Weaver (Colonel Cascio), Edward Binns (Colonel Jack Grady), Larry Hagman (Buck), William Hansen (Defence Secretary Swenson)

In 1964 the classic film on nuclear conflict was released and became a landmark in Hollywood history. Also released was Fail Safe. Dr Strangelove has dragged Fail Safe through history like a sort of phantom limb. It’s reputation – if you’ve heard about it at all – is “Dr Strangelove but with no jokes”. That’s hugely harsh on a well-made, tense and fascinating film that sees nuclear war as less the blackly comedic theatre of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction, the buzzword of the day), and more as a dark human tragedy where mistakes, suspicions and paranoia lead to disaster.

During a routine manoeuvre, a mechanical power surge at USAAF leads to a mistaken but correctly authenticated order being sent to a wing of bombers to drop their nukes on Moscow. Due to Russian jamming, USAAF has no idea this has happened until after the five minute recall window. After the five-minute window has passed, the pilots follow their training and ignore all subsequent orders no matter who gives them – even if it’s directly from the President (Henry Fonda) himself. Desperately the President works with the Soviet Union to stop the bombers (and prevent the inevitable full scale nuclear war they would provoke). Problem is national pride, mutual suspicion, subordinates who can’t stomach co-operation between enemies and those that an accidental first strike is the perfect way to start a nuclear war one side could win, keep getting in the way.

While Dr Strangelove saw the insanity of MAD – the willingness of the leaders of both sides to promote a type of war that could only lead to the destruction of all life on earth – as so darkly absurd it could only be a subject for jet-dark-satire, Fail Safe takes a more humane if equally chilling route. Shot mostly with a low-key documentary realism by Sidney Lumet, the action is restricted to no more than four main locations. Once the crisis starts we never go outside. We never even see the Russians, represented only by photos and their words given life by Presidential translator Larry Hagman. Bar from the odd piece of stock footage, we are in the bunkers with the characters. And we feel as powerless as they do, as events spin out of control.

The film could be seen as an attack on the replacement of humans from the system by machines. Sure, the strike is triggered by a faulty piece of equipment. But everything after that is the result of good old-fashioned human error. The US debate about shooting down the bombers that goes on for so long, the bombers get out of range. The Russian refusal to accept US help to shoot the bombers down, leading them to taking pot shots at radar ghosts. The attempted coups on both sides in the command room, as junior officers refuse to co-operate with the enemy. The mistrust between both sides that leads the Russians chasing a decoy attack run rather the real bombing plane, despite the pleading of the American General that it’s a decoy.

And above all, the crushing arrogant insanity of introducing a system like this in the first place. A system so regimented and drilled into its soldiers – removing any chance of independent logical thought – that the pilot of the bombers will even ignore his own wife pleading down the line that the first strike he believes he is retaliating against hasn’t even happened. A system where leading American advisors suggest that, because it’s so difficult to call back an attack like this, why not just launch everything else after it as well and claim victory. This system can destroy the world but has no leeway for human error and forbids any independent thought from anyone. Now that’s MAD.

It takes a while for the film to get going, laying its groundwork slowly. Much of the first half hour introduces the characters – such as the family life of anti-Nuclear but loyal soldier General Black (a very good Dan O’Herlihy) and the chilling pragmatism of war theorist Professor Groeteschele (Walter Matthau) to whom nuclear war is just a matter of working out what the acceptable casualty rates are (he would agree with Stalin that one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic). We tour the USAAF base where level-headed General Brogan (an excellent Frank Overton) and his twitchy number two Colonel Cascio (a slightly too fidgety Fritz Weaver) demonstrate just how fool-proof their systems are to a couple of congressmen – just as those systems fail.

From there the film plays out almost in real time, as the planes fly the two-hour journey to drop their bombs. Two hours when everyone tries to desperately tell themselves that this disaster can be prevented (or in some cases, can be turned into victory). Lumet’s film captures wonderfully the claustrophobic intensity of this. The Russians – despite never being seen – are skilfully humanised with snatches of conversation and photographs. The pilots are brave, resourceful, brilliantly trained – making their rigid determination to destroy the world for no reason (because their training doesn’t allow them to consider any other alternative) all the more tragic.

It all culminates in an impossibly bleak ending, the President’s only alternative to all-out nuclear war is one of terrifying magnitude. The inevitable build to this sacrifice is also executed with a low-key intensity. Fonda is perfect in the lead role – his tortured gravitas and decency pushing him towards ever more distasteful and finally appallingly bleak decisions.

Lumet’s film isn’t perfect – an overly impressionistic opening of General Black’s recurring dream of a matador smacks of someone who has watched way too many Bunuel films – and its slow start probably takes five minutes too long. But with its chillingly cold glaze on the flaws in the nuclear deterrent and the people who operate it, it deserves to be remembered as something more than Dr Strangelove Without the Jokes.

Nixon (1995)

Anthony Hopkins triumphs as Nixon in Oliver Stone’s surprisingly sympathetic biopic

Director: Oliver Stone

Cast: Anthony Hopkins (Richard Nixon), Joan Allen (Pat Nixon), James Woods (HR Haldeman), Powers Boothe (Alexander Haig), Larry Hagman (“Jack Jones”), Ed Harris (E. Howard Hunt), Dan Hedaya (Trini Cardoza), Bob Hoskins (J. Edgar Hoover), Madeline Kahn (Martha Mitchell), EG Marshall (John Mitchell), David Paymer (Ron Ziegler), David Hyde Pierce (John Dean), Paul Sorvino (Henry Kissinger), Mary Steenburgen (Hannah Nixon), JT Walsh (John Ehrlichman), Sam Waterston (Richard Helms), Brian Bedford (Clyde Tolson), Tom Bower (Francis Nixon), Kevin Dunn (Charles Colson), Annabeth Gish (Julie Nuxon), Tom Goldwyn (Harold Nixon), Saul Rubinek (Herbert G Klein)

In 1995, there was one person the chronicler of the 1970s American experience, Oliver Stone, hadn’t covered: Richard M Nixon. The man who was the embodiment of the dark scar on the American consciousness, the grim, unlovable presence behind the war in Vietnam, the protests and the deep, never-ending wound of Watergate, who seemed to drag the country further and further into the abyss. The man who besmirched the office, the least popular president ever, the national shame. With Stone’s searing attacks on everything from Vietnam policy to the conspiracies behind the Kennedy assassination, you’d expect his film on Nixon to be a condemnation. What people didn’t expect was a film as strikingly even-handed as this, which recasts Nixon not as a gloating villain, but a Shakespearean figure, a Greek tragedy of a man destroyed by chronic character flaws.

Opening with a crushed Nixon, like a drunken Gollum cradling his precious, listening to his precious tapes in the bowels of the White House during his final days in office, the film is told in a fascinatingly non-linear style – loosely falling into two acts, cutting backwards and forwards in time. The first act covers most of Nixon’s career up to the presidency, focusing on his Quaker childhood and the influence of his mother Hannah (Mary Steenburgen), his defeat in the 1960 election to Kennedy and his years rebuilding his political standing. The second half takes a more linear approach, covering a Presidency becoming increasingly bogged down in the inept cover-up of Watergate and increasingly desperate attempts to save his presidency, intermixed with foreign policy successes.

What is really striking is that Stone’s movie finds a great deal of sympathy for this troubled and complex man. He’s a man who has greatness in his grasp, dedicated, intelligent and with vision – but fatally undermined by self-loathing, self-pity and a bubbling resentment about not having the love of the people. Like Lear raging against the storm, or Macbeth bemoaning the impact of his vile deeds, Stone’s Nixon becomes a sympathetic figure, even while the film makes no apologies for his actions, his aggressive bombing of Cambodia (the film notes at its end the bombing led directly to the massacres of the Khmer Rouge) or his failures to claim any responsibility for how he caused his own end.

Stone’s empathetic vision of Nixon is shaped largely by Anthony Hopkins’ titanic performance in the lead role. Hopkins makes no real effort – beyond teeth and hair – to look like Nixon, but brilliantly embodies Nixon’s awkward physicality and, above all, his angry, bitter, resentful personality. It’s not an imitation, but it totally captures him. Hopkins has got it, and the disintegration of Nixon over the course of the film into the shambling, miserable, twitching, even slightly unhinged mess he became in the final days of his presidency is astounding. 

It works because Hopkins never loses sense of the potential for greatness in Nixon – sure he’s socially awkward (Hopkins superbly captures Nixon’s awkward grin, his stumbling nervousness in conversation), but politically he’s assured, confident and has huge insight into realpolitik. His flaw is that he wants to be both the master politician and the people’s champ, to be Nixon and JFK, to have the people cheer him to the rafters. It’s a longing that turns to resentment, fuelling insecurity and fear, that causing him to be so afraid of being cheated that he cheats first and bigger.

It’s that potential for greatness that swims through Stone’s masterfully made, electric film. Stone’s love for mixing film stock, fake newsreel footage, snazzy camerawork, switching colour stock, stylistically eclectic sound and music choices and bombastic lecturing comes to the fore here – and I accept it won’t be for everyone. But for me it works. It’s a big, dramatic movie because it covers an epic theme. From its early echoes of Citizen Kane – the White House as Xanadu, those missing 18 ½ minutes of the tape Nixon’s “Rosebud” – through to the accelerated pace and film stock as events spiral out of the President’s control, it’s an explosion of style that really works, even if there are points which are too on-the-nose (a scene where Nixon’s dinner talk of war is interrupted by a steak that leaks gallons of blood as he cuts into it, is clumsy in the extreme).

Stone’s theories revolve around the true villain being the government-financial power system itself, a grindingly oppressive beast chews up and spits out the men who think they can ride it. Nixon may know about the danger of the system, but he’s as powerless as anyone else. Its tendrils extend everywhere, from the creepily domineering CIA chief Helms (Sam Waterston, unsettlingly intimidating in scenes restored in the director’s cut) to the shady Texan money interests (led by an excellent Larry Hagman of all people) who sure-as-shit want to get rid of that liberal, Cuban surrender monkey Kennedy, by any means necessary (“Say Kennedy dont run in 64?”). 

Nixon wants to control it, to do some good – and the film is excellent at stressing how Nixon’s poverty-filled Quaker background gave him a drive to achieve but also a chippy insecurity and moral standards from his imperious mother he can never hope to meet – but what hope does he have? In any case, his own deep moral failings doom any chance of forging his own goals, sucking him into a quagmire where long-running dirty deeds, shady deals and unedifying company consume him. “When they look at you they see what want to be. When they look at me they see what they are” Nixon complains to the painting of Kennedy, the rival whom he can never eclipse, the man born with all the advantages Nixon never had, the millionaire embraced by the people while the working-class Nixon is reviled. It’s these resentments that consume and destroy Nixon, and Stone presents this as an epic tragedy of a great politician, crushed by his fundamentally human flaws.

Around Hopkins, Stone assembles a brilliant cast. Joan Allen is superb as Nixon’s loving but insightful wife who won’t shy to speak truth to power. James Woods is perfect as the bullishly aggressive, fiercely loyal Haldeman. Paul Sorvino does a wonderfully arch impersonation of Kissinger, always keeping his distance. David Hyde Pierce makes a smoothly innocent but determinedly self-preserving John Dean, Powers Boothe a wonderful cold Alexander Haig. Only Bob Hoskins gives a performance slightly too broad as Hoover – but he still laces the role with a crackling menace.

Nixon is a great film, an explosion of style (perhaps at times a little too much), which painstakingly strips bare the President’s psyche – his doubt, guilt, bitterness, resentments and finally overwhelming self-pity. Powered by a titanically well-observed performance by Anthony Hopkins, who is just about perfect in every frame – every nuance feels real – Nixon is a wallow in the dark underbelly of America, which hints throughout at the even greater dangers that lie under the surface, the powerful system maintaining the status quo that sees presidents come and go, but never allows any real change. It’s a remarkable film.

Primary Colors (1998)

John Travolta and Emma Thompson are definitely not the Clintons in Primary Colors

Director: Mike Nichols

Cast: John Travolta (Governor Jack Stanton), Emma Thompson (Susan Stanton), Adrian Lester (Henry Burton), Billy Bob Thornton (Richard Jemmons), Kathy Bates (Libby Holden), Larry Hagman (Governor Fred Picker), Stacy Edwards (Jennifer Rodgers), Maura Tierney (Daisy Green), Diane Ladd (Mamma Stanton), Paul Guilfoyle (Howard Ferguson), Kevin Cooney (Senator Lawrence Harris), Rebecca Walker (March Cunningham), Allison Janney (Miss Walsh), Mykelti Williamson (Dewayne Smith)

In 1998, America was engrossed in what seemed like a never-ending series of scandals around Bill Clinton, with Clinton facing impeachment. The news was filled with Clinton-Lewinsky Scandal catch-ups seemingly non-stop. Surely in the middle of that, a film that charted earlier scandals about Slick Willie would be a hit? Well Primary Colors proved that wrong. A thinly veiled portrait of the Clinton run for the White House, based on a novel written by Joe Klein who followed the Clintons on the campaign, it tanked at the box office. Possibly due to audiences having Clinton-fatigue – but also perhaps because it’s a stodgy, overlong and slightly too pleased-with-itself piece of Hollywood political commentary.

The film sticks pretty close to real-life timelines. John Travolta is Arkansas Governor Jack Stanton (Travolta does a consistent impersonation of Bill Clinton both vocally and physically during the whole film), who’s running for the Democratic Presidential nomination, supported by his (perhaps) smarter, ambitious wife Susan (Emma Thompson, doing a neat embodiment of Hillary without impersonation). Eager young black political operator Henry Burton (Adrian Lester) is recruited to help run the campaign – and finds himself increasingly drawn into the secrets of the Stantons, not least Jack’s persistent infidelities that seem to go hand-in-hand with his empathy and genuine passion for helping people. As scandal builds on scandal, the campaign to run for President becomes ever more unseemly.

Primary Colors asks questions that, to be honest, are pretty familiar to anyone who has ever seen a Hollywood film about politics. We’re presented with a Clinton-Stanton who wants to help America to re-educate itself in a modern world, who weeps with emotion when hearing a man recount his struggles with literacy (a fine cameo from Mykelti Williamson), who wants to rebuild America’s economy and build opportunities for all. And at the same time, he can’t keep it in his pants, is quite happy to dodge as much as possible the consequences of his actions, and is blithely disinterested in the impact his infidelities have on other people. Essentially the film wants to ask: at what point does a man’s personal behaviour and morals start to outweigh his good intentions?

It just takes a long time to ask it. A very long time. Primary Colors is a film that could easily be half an hour shorter, and you would miss very little. It’s a stodgy, overlong, smug drama that takes a gleeful delight in how clever it’s being making a film about the Clintons that-isn’t-about-them. It’s weakened as well by using an overly familiar device of putting a naïve and well-meaning audience surrogate character at its centre. We’ve seen this growth of disillusionment before, but Adrian Lester (in a break out role) fails to make Henry Burton a really interesting character – he’s little more than a cipher that we can project our views onto, and Lester is too reserved an actor to make him a character we can effectively invest in as a person. Instead he becomes a largely passive observer that more interesting characters revolve around.

Those characters being largely the Stantons themselves. John Travolta does a very good impersonation of Clinton, but he offers very little insight into the sort of person Clinton is, his motivations or his feelings. Like the character, the role is all performance and you never get a sense of how genuine his goals are and how much ambition is his main driver. As scandals pile up, Travolta is great at capturing Clinton’s sense of hurt that anyone would question his morals (even as his actions display his fundamental lack of them), but the role is short on depth. 

Emma Thompson gets less to play with as Hillary. In fact, she disappears from the second half of the film, after an affair plotline between her and Lester was cut completely from the film (something that makes certain scenes, where actors are clearly responding to this non-existent plotline, amusing to watch). But she manages to make the role something a little more than impersonation, delivering a whipper-sharp, ambitious woman who has buried her resentments about her husband’s betrayals under a wish to achieve a higher goal.

The rest of the cast deliver decent performances, but the stand-out is Kathy Bates as a long-time Stanton friend turned political fixer, who sees her idealisation of the Stantons turn to bitter disillusionment. Bates at first seems to be delivering another of her custom-made “larger than life” roles, but as the stuff hits the fan she layers it with a real emotional depth and complexity. It’s a caricature role that she turns into something real, a woman who feels genuine pain at seeing her deeply held political convictions and ideals being slowly disregarded by her heroes.

But then we get her point. Don’t we all feel a bit like that when we think back about Bill Clinton? The more we learn about his affairs and sexual scandals – and the more that #MeToo develops our understanding of how powerful men can abuse their power to take advantage of star-struck young women – the less sympathetic he seems. The film too suffers from some really out-of-date views of male sexuality. Billy Bob Thornton’s political fixer exposes himself early on in the film to a female worker, but this is shrugged off as “banter”, as opposed to a criminal offence – and the film largely avoids giving any air time to Stanton’s principal victim, the teenage daughter of a black restauranter whom he may or may not have impregnated. Stanton uses his power to gain sexual favours – one of his earliest acts is casually picking up a gawky English teacher who’s giving him a guided tour of her school (a funny cameo from Allison Janney) – but this is largely categorised as a personal weakness that doesn’t impact his suitability for the Presidency, something that feels more and more uncomfortable.

However, Primary Colors’ real problem is that it is overlong and a little bit too pleased with its intricate reconstruction of semi-true events. Although there are funny lines and decent performances, the film lacks any real zip and it gives no real insight into modern politics (other than perhaps deploring the compromises politicians must make) or the Clintons themselves. Instead it settles for telling us things we already know at great length and making safe but empty points about modern America. Far from exploring a Faustian pact where we accept deep personal failings in politicians because we believe that, overall, they could be a force for good, instead Primary Colors is all about turning shades of grey into obvious clear-cut moral choices.