Fail-Safe is a 1964 film directed by Sidney Lumet, based on the 1962 novel of the same name by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler. It tells the story of a fictional Cold War nuclear crisis. The film features an all star cast, including Henry Fonda, Dan O'Herlihy, Walter Matthau, Frank Overton, and early appearances by Fritz Weaver, Dom DeLuise and Larry Hagman.
The film takes place during the Cold War, when tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were at their height. At the headquarters of the Strategic Air Command (SAC), where visiting Congressman Raskob (Sorrell Booke) is expressing his discomfort with how much of the U.S. defense system is automated without direct human responsibility, an unidentified object is detected approaching North America from Europe. With such incidents a common occurrence, standard procedure is invoked, deploying American fighter aircraft to meet the potential threat. According to routine, American strategic bombers are directed to fly to various predetermined "fail-safe" points outside the borders of the Soviet Union, where they are to remain until receiving either orders to return to base or a special attack code transmitted through an electronic "fail-safe" box in each group commander's bomber.
As is usual, the original "threat" is proven to be innocuous, and orders are issued to have the American bombers recalled. However, the SAC computer system experiences a technical failure which causes a valid attack code to be electronically transmitted to one of the bomber groups. Colonel Jack Grady (Edward Binns), commanding the bomber group, attempts to contact SAC to confirm the order, but is unable to do so, as the group's radio transmissions are being jammed by the Soviets. Having received a valid attack code, and with no known contrary orders, he proceeds with the group's designated attack mission: to drop thermonuclear bombs on Moscow.
Realizing what has occurred, but still unable to communicate with the bombers, American military commanders advise the President of the United States (Henry Fonda) of the situation and urgently invoke measures to avert the attack. After a failed attempt to send American fighter jets to shoot down the bombers, the President contacts the Soviet Chairman to warn him of the growing danger to Moscow and offer American assistance in shooting down the bomber group. The Soviets, both prideful and somewhat suspicious of possible American deception, refuse the help. Having underestimated the bombers' speed, however, they are also unable to shoot them down.
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