is a 1964 Cold War
thriller movie based on a bestselling 1962 novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, directed by Sidney Lumet
and starring Henry Fonda
. It was also adapted for a live broadcast in 2000 on CBS
starring George Clooney
, Harvey Keitel
and Don Cheadle
In The Sixties
, 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.
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 plan 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.
- All-Star Cast: The 1964 version has Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, Dan O'Herlihy, Fritz Weaver, and Dom De Luise (!).
- 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.
- 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 Deluise in perhaps his most dead serious role, and his debut no less.
- Cold War
- 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 his wife and daughter in the process.
- And five million New Yorkers, and the President's wife.
- Duelling Movies: With Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, which followed the same premise from a more satirical perspective. Dr. Strangelove achieved iconic status while Fail Safe, despite being good, performed poorly at the box office.
- 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.
- 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.
- Heroic BSOD: Grady goes through this as he hears his son'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 with a genuine one, and after the president orders the nuking of New York as a conciliatory gesture, suggests recovering corporate financial records instead of victims.
- 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 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 knows), 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 shows some amount of Heroic BSOD 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.
- The president's family was also in New York City.
- Interestingly, it is suggested by a prophetic dream that General Black was expecting to die or be demoted for failing his duty.
- In the novel, it's made clear that the dream is Black's conscience torturing him about what he knows his job is to do. He knows that to make it stop, he just has to leave Strategic Air Command - but to do that would be to give up all he's ever lived for.
- The Sixties
- 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.
- War Hawk: Professor 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.