Film / Fail Safe

Fail Safe is a 1964 Cold War thriller movie based on a bestselling 1962 novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, directed by Sidney Lumet and featuring a cast including Henry Fonda and Walter Matthau. It was also adapted for a live broadcast drama on CBS in 2000, which starred George Clooney, Harvey Keitel and Don Cheadle.

In The '60s, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) sees a bogie on its radar screen and scrambles its bombers to "fail-safe points" to investigate whether it is a Russian incursion. The bogie turns out to be harmless, and most of the bomber groups are ordered to return home. However, SAC's computer mistakenly transmits a "go code" to one of the bomber groups, commanded by Colonel Jack Grady, ordering them to enter Russian airspace and drop their nukes on Moscow. The remainder of the book deals with the lengths the Americans are willing to go to keep the situation from escalating and keep Grady from reaching his target.

For a similarly-themed (but far more satirically comedic) movie from 1964, see Dr. Strangelove.

This film includes examples of:

  • Ace Pilot: Subverted. The situation escalates in part because Colonel Grady and his crew have been trained too well.
  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: Minor version. The whole situation starts because the computers that held the attack codes (because the military thought them to be a better option than giving the codes' authority to any single man) have a minor, apparently routine electronics malfunction that — unknown to Air Command at the time — made them broadcast the code.
  • Anti-Villain: Colonel Grady and his squadron. They have been led to assume through no fault of their own that war has been declared and commit themselves to doing everything they have been trained to do, despite knowing that doing so means possible nuclear annihilation.
    • The President, for greenlighting the destruction of New York and its millions of inhabitants in order to avoid an even bigger catastrophe.
  • Apocalypse How: By the end of the story, the Americans trade a likely Class 4 for a very bittersweet Class 1.
  • The Big Board: Fail-Safe was one of the first movies (along with Dr. Strangelove) to have this now-ubiquitous feature.
  • Bittersweet Ending: In order to prevent all-out nuclear war, the President orders American bombers to dump a nuclear payload on New York City — effectively signing the death warrant of five million people, including the visiting First Lady and General Black's wife and daughter — as a gesture of appeasement to the Russians.
  • The Cameo: Dom De Luise in perhaps his most dead serious role, and his debut no less.
  • Determinator: Once they receive the erroneous go-ahead to nuke Moscow, absolutely nothing will stop Group 6 from reaching their destination. Not aerial and nuclear engagement by the Russians, not orders to abort by the Strategic Air Command and the President himself (which they have been trained to ignore), not even the transmitted pleas of Colonel Grady's wife and son.
  • Driven to Suicide: General Black, after he is forced to drop nuclear weapons on New York City and kill five million New Yorkers, including the President's wife and his own his wife and daughter.
  • Failsafe Failure: SAC's computer system is installed to remove the possibility of human error causing catastrophe, but ends up causing the crisis.
    Knapp: The fact is, the machines work so fast... they are so intricate... the mistakes they make are so subtle... that very often a human being just can't know whether a machine is lying or telling the truth.
    • The standing orders given to the Wing (to refuse any type of order after a certain point in their mission) mean SAC can only sit back and see as their radioed pleas to the Wing remain unheard.
  • Famous Last Words: "Katie...a dream...a dream...the matador...the matador... the" Spoken by General Black.
  • For Want of a Nail: A computer error sends a "go code" to an American bomber group, leading them to assume that war has started and that a nuclear attack on Moscow has been authorized.
  • Gone Horribly Right: The president and SAC open a line of communication to Grady's fleet ordering them to stand down. But because they have been told that the Soviets might send transmissions imitating their commanders during training, the fleet follows protocol and ignores the counter-orders.
  • Hate Sink: Professor Groeteschele, see Jerk Ass. Every other character, including the Russians, are portrayed as sympathetic. Groeteschele believes that the Russians should be wiped out if they can be.
  • Hell Is That Noise: The horrible shriek of a telephone being abruptly cut off by a massive nuclear explosion. The man on the other end was the US Ambassador to the Soviet Union, and the city being destroyed was Moscow. The sound is so loud and piercing that it reverberates around the President's bunker.
  • He Who Fights Monsters: Professor Groeteschele is arguing with Air Force General Black over the merits of launching a first-strike nuclear attack against the Soviet Union in the wake of a technical malfunction that sent a U.S. bomber to drop a bomb on Moscow, arguing that the threat posed by Communism justifies it.
    Groeteschele: How long would the Nazis have kept it up, General, if every Jew they came after had met them with a gun in his hand? But I learned from them, General Black. Oh, I learned.
    Black: You learned too well, Professor. You learned so well that now there's no difference between you and what you want to kill.
    • The book adds in some background to this: Groeteschele's family were German Jews (IIRC), and his father had seen what was coming with the Nazis and emigrated out of there quickly. Said father often argued that point with his fellow Jews in America, claiming that if the Germans had racked up enough deaths trying to exterminate the Jews, they might have rethunk their policies. So it's a little of this trope and Well-Intentioned Extremist.
  • Heroic B.S.O.D.: Grady goes through this as he hears his wife's voice through the radio telling him there is no war, no longer sure what the truth is.
  • Idiot Ball / Honor Before Reason: If the Americans had coordinated with the Soviets earlier, or if the Soviets had believed the Americans that plane 6 was acting as a diversion and had no bombs, or Grady had been willing to listen to the President (on the logic that one bomber group would have a very small impact if the war was real, but would start it if it as yet was not), the whole thing could have been prevented. This was a big part of the point of the book/film.
  • Irrevocable Order: The attack plan against Russia that gets the whole mess started. The lamentations of many characters lie on the fact that many measures were taken to make the attack plans irrevocable in case of actual war, but nobody thought up of any measures on the possibility (however impossibly remote it was believed to be at the time) that the attack plan would be activated by mistake.
  • Jerk Ass: Professor Groeteschele. He tries to egg on the president to follow up Grady's attack wing's accidental first strike with a genuine second one from their missile ICBMs, and after the president orders the nuking of New York as a conciliatory gesture, suggests recovering corporate financial records instead of victims.
    • Jerkass Has a Point: They have less than ten minutes left, so it's impossible to evacuate anyone at all, but by recovering the most important financial records (by fax, for example) they might tone down the severity of the inevitable economic recession.
  • Know-Nothing Know-It-All: Groeteschele believes that Moscow will surrender in the face of an all-out attack, as according to Communist doctrine the failure of capitalism is inevitable. It doesn't occur to him that the Soviets would be motivated by Patriotic Fervor as well as ideology.
  • The Last Dance: On top of every other reason Grady's bomber had for not stopping its mission, the crew is severely irradiated by a small nuclear anti-air missile launched at them by the Soviets, which they manage to spoof into exploding some distance away and thus not annihilate them immediately. They thus decide that making the mission go through (since they "no longer have anything to return to") is priority.
  • Let No Crisis Go to Waste: Rather than wanting to deescalate the situation, Professor Groeteschele sees the accidental crisis as an opportunity to wipe out the Russians for real.
  • Moral Dilemma: As the crisis escalates, the Americans are put in a position where they must either divulge the weaknesses of the nukes Colonel Grady is carrying to the Russians or risk the breakout of nuclear war.
    • Once the demise of Moscow becomes inevitable, the president must find a way to convince the Russians not to retaliate. His solution? Drop nukes on New York, the most populous city in the United States, and kill five million people along with his own wife.
    • At the start of the story, General Black expresses fear of what a total nuclear war would entail. By the end, in order to prevent that very scenario, he has to drop nukes on New York and kill his family in the process. Understandably, Black is unable to live with his actions.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed:
    • Groetschele is clearly modeled on Henry Kissinger, who at the time the book was written was a political scientist best-known for his writings on limited nuclear war.
    • The President's wife only appears in a photograph on a newspaper front-page. Apparently to compound the impact on the film's original audiences of the First Lady's life being sacrificed, she greatly resembles Jackie Kennedy.
  • No Matter How Much I Beg: A dramatic, Gone Horribly Right version. The bomber wings' standing orders are to not deviate from the plan of attack without the proper counter-order code (which SAC doesn't know), regardless of who's giving the order (they have been trained with the possibility that whoever calls them over the radio may be a Russian agent imitating a higher-up). This goes as far as Grady ignoring his own wife when she calls begging him to stop and saying things only she would know (Grady simply says she may have been compromised somehow, although he does show some amount of Heroic B.S.O.D. afterwards).
  • Not So Different: The pacifistic General Black's rebuke to Professor Groeteschele's recommendation for a first strike.
    Black: You're justifying murder.
    Groeteschele: Yes, to keep from being murdered!
  • A Nuclear Error: Group Six is launched with nuclear weapons and receives the "go code" because of a technical failure. Because they are literally following their instructions, which tell them to ignore stand-down orders, the U.S. has to give the Soviets whatever information they can to tell them how to shoot down their own planes but one bomber escapes the defences and heads for Moscow. When the inevitable becomes clear, the President offers a solution to his Soviet counterpart to avoid a nuclear holocaust: since their largest city is doomed, he will offer up America's largest city in return as an Heroic Sacrifice to save the world. When the bomb goes off over New York City, the pilot who had to drop it commits suicide because his wife and children were in New York.
  • Power Is Sexy: Early in the film Groeteschele drives a beautiful young woman home from a cocktail party. She talks to him about the "beauty" of nuclear war and how people like him make a "marvelous game" out of death, then instructs him to pull over to the side of the road and attempts to coax him into sex.
    Groeteschele: I make death into a game for people like you to get excited about. I watched you tonight. You'd love making it possible, wouldn't you? You'd love pressing that button. What a thrill that would be, knowing you have to die, to have the power to take everyone else with you. The mob of them with their plans, their little hopes, born to be murdered. Turning away from it, closing their eyes to it, and you could be the one to make it true. Do it to them. But you're afraid, so you look for the thrill someplace else. And who better than a man who isn't afraid? [She reaches for him, and he slaps her in the face] I'm not your kind.
  • Reality Has No Soundtrack: While a soundtrack was scored for the music, it was not used. The silence is far more ominous.
  • Scientist vs. Soldier: The "soldiers" want to prevent World War III from happening because they know perfectly well (many of them from personal experience) that it's an apocalyptic no-win scenario. Professor Groeteschele, the sole "scientist", calls for a full-on commitment to nuclear warfare because his research tells him that it's statistically likely that America might "win".
  • The '60s: The height of the Cold War. Many of the characters are old enough to be veterans of more recent wars (World War II and Korea) and the horror that they've seen has moulded them greatly.
  • War Hawk: Groeteschele is an academic example (not just because he's an academic), insisting on not letting the current crisis go to waste and follow up the accidental first strike with a real one, hoping to catch the Russians unaware.