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A scene from Fail Safe.


Pandemic lessons from a Cold War classic

Fail Safe focuses on leaders who have no good options to avert disaster

With the coronavirus pandemic exacerbating world governments’ servicing of over $253 trillion in worldwide debt, leaders around the globe are making incredibly difficult decisions as they balance saving lives from the virus and avoiding a global economic collapse.

Viewers who want to watch a film that displays the trials of leadership in a similar no-win situation should consider going old school and giving the 1964 classic Fail Safe a watch (available on Amazon Prime).

Fail Safe is director Sidney Lumet’s (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network) critically acclaimed Cold War thriller.  The film begins with America’s early invader detection system picking up a UFO that could possibly be a Soviet bomber or a missile.  Several bomber squadrons scramble to their designated “fail safe” points, where they will await their next orders. “Fail safe” is an engineering term referring to a point in a system where, if something fails, other safeguards can minimize the chance of a complete breakdown.

As you might guess, though, something goes wrong. While the original threat proves harmless, one of the bomber squadrons mistakenly gets an order to go past their fail safe coordinates.  Their mission: Fly to Moscow and drop an atomic payload.  

The defense system makes it extremely difficult to call back the orders.  Therefore, the president (Henry Fonda) faces an agonizing decision: What will he do if the bombers successfully reach their target?  One of his advisors, Professor Groeteschele (played by a young Walter Matthau), argues the U.S. should launch a full-scale strike on the Soviets, as he believes they would surrender.  The president’s other choice would be to drop a hydrogen bomb on New York City to even the score and thereby avoid the possibility of a global nuclear conflict.    

The tension in the film is terrific, the acting performances compelling, and viewers will find themselves fully engaged all the way to the film’s difficult conclusion.

While the parallels to our current situation are not exactly equivalent, the basic concept is: World leaders will have to make difficult decisions with respect to COVID-19.  These choices will be hard and may soon get even harder.  But no scenario comes without suffering.

In a culture that does not view suffering as a natural consequence of living in a fallen world, many consider the no-good-answer scenario unacceptable.  As a result, criticism for leaders everywhere abounds.

In Romans, Paul instructs everyone to be subject to their governing authorities. His words are even more important to heed now.  Fail Safe will most likely remind viewers how hard it is to be a leader on the world stage, especially when a pandemic offers no simple choices. Viewers will hopefully also recognize that the best thing we can do for our leaders, as Paul encourages in 1 Timothy, is pray for them.

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Death row drama Clemency offers little hope

“I’m alone, and nobody can fix it.” So prison warden Bernadine Williams describes carrying out executions. But she could be speaking for every character in Clemency, a film from writer/director Chinonye Chukwu. Loneliness and despair escort all on the walk toward death, Chukwu seems to say.

The film follows Williams (Alfre Woodard) as she prepares for the lethal injection of Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge). Years running death row have taken their toll. Williams spends many nights at a bar, and her husband (the always excellent Wendell Pierce) threatens separation. Adding to her unease are doubts that Woods is guilty.

Clemency (rated R for some disturbing material and eight expletives) won the 2019 Sundance Grand Jury Prize for drama. Chukwu seems uninterested in moving the needle in the debate on capital punishment. In Clemency, life is as bleak as the dark hues that swallow the scenes in the prison, bar, and Williams’ home. Chukwu’s characters can only offer weak platitudes. Even the priest doesn’t see the Light: He quotes Romans 8:38-39 but omits “which is in Jesus Christ our Lord.” Despair in life and death will prevail unless we believe that God sent His Son to fix it.

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Romulus Entertainment

Romulus Entertainment


The color of money

African American entrepreneur challenges establishment in historical drama The Banker

Filmmakers who tackle themes of social inequality sometimes allow agendas to run roughshod over storytelling. Producer Anthony Mackie and director George Nolfi take a more engaging approach in The Banker, delivering a teachable moment about racial injustice while keeping drama front and center. 

The film owes much of its watchability to an intriguing main character and top-notch performances from Mackie and Samuel L. Jackson. Strong language and a split focus are drawbacks.

The Banker is “inspired by true events” mainly from the 1950s and ’60s. Mackie plays Bernard Garrett, an African American math whiz and business mastermind. Thick-rimmed glasses and a plain gray suit belie a fervor to make money and create opportunities for black people.

Los Angeles is more open-minded than most places, but Garrett meets resistance from the city’s banking establishment when he buys properties in white neighborhoods and flips them—demographically—renting them to blacks. Joe Morris (Jackson), a wealthy black nightclub owner, helps Garrett bankroll his ventures. Larger-than-life baddie seems like an easy paycheck for Jackson. Still, he nails his turn as Garrett’s sidekick—part tutor, part tempter. Mackie shines as an ambitious yet strait-laced idealist.

The money rolls in after Garrett schools Matt Steiner (Nicholas Hoult), a working-class white friend, in high finance and high society so he can be the trio’s public face. Garrett’s ability to click with a spectrum of personality types is fascinating. Steiner’s saga is essential to the narrative, but more than once it diverts the spotlight. For example, I felt the film lingers too long on Steiner’s arithmetic and golf lessons.

It’s Garrett’s dream to return to his small Southern hometown and replicate his success there. But Willis, Texas, is no Los Angeles. Morris sums up the situation.

“Two Negroes manage to buy two banks full of white folks’ money—in Texas—and loan it to other Negroes.” Garrett is defying the social order, a vexed senator warns. Politicians and rivals conspire to take Garrett down, and wealth and ego threaten to compromise the partnership as well.

The March release of The Banker, the first major original motion picture from Apple TV Plus, comes after a four-month delay. Originally scheduled for a November 2019 debut, the film met with controversy when the two real-life half-sisters of Garrett’s son, just a boy in the film, accused him of sexual abuse. The studio pulled the film, tweaked some details, and erased Bernard Garrett Jr.’s co-producer credits. (No harm in a few pixels of historical revisionism, right?) None of these details surfaces in the film. The objectionable content consists of smoking, drinking, and bad language. 

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