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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.

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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.
  • After the End: Discussed in the dinner party in Washington Groteschele attends. He himself posits that the survivors of an all-out nuclear war would be convicts and file clerks: the former being especially heinous criminals locked up in heavy-duty solitary confinement, and the latter those working for large corporations protected by fireproof rooms and literal tons of paper as thermal insulation. While the convicts would be accomplished at violence, the clerks would be masters of organization, leaving the results of a potential conflict uncertain.
  • 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.
    • The Russians get it, too, as the radio jamming that made it impossible to either recall the bombers or for the group to confirm their orders at the most critical time was based on their own computer systems predicting that the routine staging of bombers at their fail-safe points (which have been stated to occur once or twice a month with no consequence) might be a real attack. When the President asks the Premier on what basis the computer made that call, his answer is basically "a lot of math I don't know a lot about, and it's not really accurate, but it gives us 'something' to work with."
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  • A Million Is a Statistic: Invoked and inverted during the dinner party. Groteschele quotes a figure of 60 million casualties the US could expect to withstand in a nuclear exchange (down from an earlier 100 million maximum); when the hosting Senator scoffs at the difference between the two figures, Groteschele replies "Are you prepared to say, Senator, that the saving of 40 million lives is unimportant?" The Senator snaps back that saving the 60 million is important—as in, not engaging in nuclear conflict at all.
  • 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.
  • Artistic License – Military: Directly invoked by a post-credits disclaimer, claiming that the United States Air Force is aware of the risks of accidental nuclear war and has safeguards in place to prevent the events of the plot taking place.
    • Group 6's target is a direct attack on Moscow—not any military targets in or around the city. Nuclear strategy in general focused on counterforce tactics, where the primary targets were the enemy's own military/nuclear assets (silos, airbases, command and control, etc.). Decapitation strikes like the one portrayed in the film were generally frowned upon, as it would give the enemy less of a chance to surrender, and might force them to fight to utter destruction, which is detrimental to both combatants.
    • During the alert response caused by the airliner, General Bogan very rapidly brings the alert force to the equivalent of DEFCON 2, putting them one step below full war readiness. Usually, DEFCON changes occur more gradually in response to international tensions, and in this scenario, it's more likely to go straight to DEFCON 1 upon confirmation of an enemy attack.
  • Book-Ends: The movie begins (during General Black's nightmare) and ends (during the end credits) with the same sequence of sounds: the cheering of the crowd at the bullfight, mixed with the engines of the Vindicator bombers, then replaced by the sound of a phone melting from a nuclear explosion.
  • 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.
  • Crazy Enough to Work: Grady's plan to evade the nuclear missile wall set to detonate ahead of them on their run-in to Moscow. He surmises that the collection of SAMs sent their way may still have their infrared/heat seekers active, so he orders his defensive systems operator to fire their two remaining nuclear air-to-air missiles and send them on a straight-up trajectory, hoping to fool the Soviet missiles into detonating too high to cause any damage. It works. The crew still end up with a fatal dose of radiation, and their path to Moscow is wide open.
  • Decoy Protagonist: More like Decoy Antagonist in this case. The SAC alert is first raised by an airliner off course over Canada, which loses power on all of its engines simultaneously and falls below RADAR before getting them going again—this appears to the people in the control to look like a nuclear missile (which usually does not have air-breathing engines) on course for Detroit. After positive ID is made of the airliner, the SAC forces return to normal...until the computer glitch sends Group 6, still unreleased from its fail-safe point, its Go code, starting up the real tension in the film.
  • 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.
  • Defcon Five: The SAC in this film use a color-coded alert status (from war to peace state: Red, Green, Yellow, Blue, and White/Clear). During the first SAC alert triggered by the airliner, Gen. Bogan pushes the alert status all the way up to Condition Green, putting the strike forces on a near-war footing.
  • Doesn't Trust Those Guys: Both sides have this in spades, as decades of training themselves for an inevitable war against the other results in the crisis worsening.
    • During the first discussion between the President and the Premier, the Russians initially refuse any assistance from the Americans to shoot the bombers down, and they only relent when it becomes clear that just 6 bombers are giving half the Soviet air defenses an incredibly hard time.
    • This is a contributor to Colonel Cascio's mental breakdown, since he can't bring himself to aid the Soviets in killing their own men, convinced the crisis is a Soviet-engineered trap.
    • Marshal Nevsky, General Bogan's counterpart in the Soviet air defense command, has this problem as well. As the Soviets get more effective against the bomber group, the bombers switch to a ground-hugging flight plan, causing them to fall off American and Soviet RADAR. Colonel Grady sends up the #6 plane in the group (which carries no bombs but more defensive jammers and decoys) to draw attention away from the two remaining bombers. Bogan tells Nevsky this, but Nevsky decides to press the attack on the plane anyways, despite Bogan's emphatic warnings. Once the plane is destroyed, Nevsky collapses, the implication being that he realized his actions will ensure the success of the other bombers against Moscow.
  • 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 matador...me...me." Spoken by General Black.
    • Courtesy of the American ambassador in Moscow: "Mr. President, I can hear the sounds of sirens in the distance, and I can see the trail of defensive missiles going off. The sky is awfully bright, just like a Fourth of July—"(screeching caused by phone melting in nuclear fireball)
  • 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. A simultaneous radio jamming performed by the Russians based on their own estimates prior to the go-code transmission makes it impossible to recall the bombers until it's too late.
  • 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 bomber group follows protocol and ignores the counter-orders.
    • The US bomber force dramatically and definitely demonstrates how effective it is at its job...at the worst possible time and scenario for it to happen.
  • Hate Sink: Professor Groeteschele, see Jerkass. 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...and the Pentagon bunker...and SAC HQ.
    • The reliance on incidental sounds to provide atmosphere (rather than a traditional soundtrack) can make this effect more acute, as every mechanical buzzer, beep, alarm, click, seems to be outlined by the lack of anything else to blur them.
    • Another good example is when Gen. Bogan activates the "touch-phone" to connect to Soviet air defenses. He hesitates in depressing the push-to-talk switch, and the slow press causes a godawful noise to play. When he presses the switch at a regular speed, it makes a less horrible "ping."
  • 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, 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 suffered enough deaths trying to exterminate the Jews, they might have rethunk the Holocaust. So it's a little of this trope and Well-Intentioned Extremist.
  • Heroic BSoD: 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.
  • Hidden Depths: The scene where Groteschele slaps the woman with the nuclear death fetish in his car is supposed to demonstrate that despite his advocacy for hardline tactics against the Soviets, even after the accidental "go" code, he himself is NOT a war-loving sadist, and any advice he gives regarding the crisis and nuclear war is based solely out of a survival instinct and patriotism.
  • Hotline: This film features two: the expected phone line between the President and the Soviet Premier, and the Red-1/Ultimate-1 touch phone in SAC HQ that provides a connection to Soviet air defense HQ.
  • 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.
  • Jerkass: Professor Groeteschele. He tries to egg on the president to follow up Grady's attack wing's accidental strike with a full-scale one, 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:
      • There's very little practical point in excavating for the burial of 5 million casualties, but even with New York nuked into rubble, the rest of the nation has to go on, and they need the financial/economic backbone.
      • Groteschele gets it earlier when the strategic planning group is discussing the question of limited war (whether or not a nuclear exchange has to be all-out from the beginning or can be limited to specific targets and goals short of total annihilation). While he doesn't necessarily agree with General Black's focus on slowing down their nuclear readiness, he concedes that it's easier to think about the topic without worrying about the possibility of a accidental launch; if the Russians launched an ICBM by accident, should a limited counterstrike be the option, or should they launch an all-out attack in retaliation? They'll get their answer to that scenario sooner than they think...
  • 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, but a least a portion of the Communist Bloc has to remain intact when it happens. 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. After the President offers the sacrifice of New York to avoid war, he seems resigned to let it happen, rather than continue to pursue that agenda.
  • Moral Dilemma: As the crisis escalates, the Americans are put in a position where they must either divulge the weaknesses of their own forces 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.
  • Mutually Assured Destruction: Considering the subject matter of the film, this concept hangs heavily over the entire plot.
    • The heated debate at the dinner party at the beginning of the film discusses this topic: Groteschele is of the opinion that nuclear war is merely no more than war as it always has been—resolution of political conflict by violent means—and that in human history, genocidal campaigns have wiped out entire cultures and peoples before, and that even nuclear war has a winner and a loser at the end of it. The hosting Senator disagrees, essentially invoking the MAD trope that the number killed so quickly and the resulting long-term effects on society transcend traditional warfare, and there would not be much of a "culture" left to survive.
  • Multitasked Converation: Buck, the Russian translator, is saddled with this, especially as he has to not only relay the Premier's words, but also provide clues to the President of the Premier's emotional state—Buck's not actually speaking on the phone circuit, but is monitoring the conversation. But when the President reveals his proposal to nuke New York City to level the scales in case Moscow is destroyed, Buck's statement of "Holy Mother of God" could be either aken as his own reaction, that of the Premier, or both.
  • 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 past a certain time after leaving their fail-safe points, 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 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.
  • 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. The ambient sound effects make it worse.
  • Right on the Tick: Spoken verbatim by Mr. Knapp when the bombers on airborne alert reach their fail-safe points within seconds of each other.
  • Sanity Slippage: Colonel Cascio undergoes this during the whole crisis. He's not on perfectly solid ground to begin with, having been accidentally seen by General Bogan having to deal with his alcoholic parents (who he may still live with). From the moment the Americans order their own fighters to attack the bombers in an attempt to stop them, he keeps trying his best to rationalize the whole thing as an elaborate Soviet trap to lower their guard prior to an attack. The emotional strain gets to the point where he freezes up on a conference call with the Soviet air defenses (he's been ordered to reveal top-secret information about the air-to-air missiles carried by the bombers), then attempts to incapacitate Bogan and take control of SAC forces himself to order a full-scale attack on the Soviets. He's arrested by M Ps, and is taken away in a full mental breakdown.
  • 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.
  • Spam Attack: The Soviet last-ditch plan against the two remaining bombers involves taking the rest of their nuclear surface-to-air missiles and detonating them over the bombers' estimated position, hoping to slam the bombers into the ground with a gigantic nuclear wall. It doesn't work, unfortunately.
    • The Soviets throwing half of their fighter strength at Group 6 has this effect, especially as their effectiveness against the bombers' defensive missiles and jamming/decoy equipment is marginal at first.
  • Suddenly SHOUTING!: In places throughout the script, but it get special notice as the pervasive lack of soundtrack gives these events considerably more impact.
    • The strongest example is during the beginning of the Soviets' defense against the bombers. When one of the bombers takes out a Soviet fighter squadron with its nuclear-armed air-to-air missiles, the entire American control room explodes in cheers. Bogan shouts everybody back to quiet, as the Americans winning against the Soviets is the BAD ending in this crisis...
      Gen. Bogan: EVERYBODY SHUT UP!!!! This isn't some damn football game, remember that!
    • The Soviet Premier gets some of this during his conversations with the President on the hotline, when you can hear his angrier delivery suddenly burst through the handset.
  • Suicide Mission: In an attempt to intercept Group 6 before it gets too far, the President (on advice of the Pentagon team and SAC) orders the fighter squadron that had been escorting the group to turn back, overtake them, and shoot them down. Because they didn't follow the group on its course to Russia, they have to use afterburners to catch up, burning all their fuel and resulting in the pilots perishing in the Arctic waters once they flame out, ejection or not. Not one missile manages to make it to the bomber group before they all flame out, but it is hoped that by the Soviets seeing this sacrificial action on their own Big Board, they will be more likely to believe that the bombers' flight towards Moscow is an accident the US is trying to fix.
    • Group 6's mission, based on the defenses the Soviets were expected to deploy. Especially so after Grady's plane manages to avoid the bulk of the nuclear SAM wall sent after them—they still took a strong enough radiation dose to kill them in a couple of days, so Grady and the crew elect to destroy themselves with the bomb detonation.
  • Tactful Translation: Played with. The President's instructions to Buck, his translator, are to be as true to the Premier's delivery of his words, and even report changes in the tone of his voice as an indicator to his emotional state. However, Buck's understandably nervous translation doesn't quite match the Premier's emotional state, especially when he gets especially pissed.
  • 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.
  • Who Watches the Watchmen?: Referenced by Congressman Raskob during the tour of the SAC facility, by way of "Who checks the checker?", in reference to his concern that the layer upon layer of technical and organizational complexity makes it difficult to determine who has ultimate responsibility for the nuclear deterrent. When Gen. Bogan answers "the President" (and Mr. Knapp simultaneously answers "No one"), Raskob dismisses that answer as the President can't possibly have the detailed information to know everything going on in the system—ultimately, no one is responsible.
  • You Are Too Late: Not overtly referenced (and there's no real enemy in this scenario), but bad timing affects everything in the plot. The glitched "Go" code is transmitted at the exact moment the Russians are engaged in preemptive radio jamming, preventing them from getting verbal confirmation and attacking on their "fail-safe box's" authorization alone. The American President doesn't get the Russian Premier to have the jamming shut off until after the pilots are no longer going to accept a verbal stop command, even from the President. And the attempt by the Americans to shoot down their own bombers looks to have been a failure by mere seconds.


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