Fail-Safe (1964) - Plot Summary Poster



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  • American planes are sent to deliver a nuclear attack on Moscow, but it's a mistake due to an electrical malfunction. Can all-out war be averted?

  • A series of human and computer errors sends a squadron of American 'Vindicator' bombers to nuke Moscow. The President, in order to convince the Soviets that this is a mistake, orders the Strategic Air Command to help the Soviets stop them.

  • When the United States Air Force's elaborate fail-safe systems fail, a squadron of nuclear-armed bombers crosses the Bering Strait into the USSR to attack. No one is quite sure why it happened but it's left to the President of the United States to try and find a solution with his Soviet counterpart. For some, like political scientist Professor Groetschele, the situation presents opportunities. He argues that they should not dwell on the morality of the attack and simply accept that it has happened. On that basis, he argues in favor of an all-out nuclear attack against the Soviet Union as the only sure way to ensure the survival of American culture and beliefs. The President sees it differently and works with the Soviets to stop the American bombers before they reach their target. When that fails, the President sees only one possible way to prevent global thermo-nuclear war.

  • In the Cold War, there is a malfunction in the electronic system in Omaha and an American bomber wrongly receives the order to attack Moscow. The base commander and the President of the United States unsuccessfully try to call off the instruction, but the Soviet defense jams the airplane radio. The bombers commander Colonel Jack Grady heads with five other airplanes to accomplish the suicide mission in Moscow. The American President orders to shoot the bombers down but the other airplanes do not succeed. He contacts the Soviet Chairman explaining that the attack is a mistake and offers an unthinkable sacrifice to avoid the Soviet counterattacking. Will the Soviet accept?

  • A technical malfunction in the Pentagon's strategic control system causes an erroneous order to be sent to a B-52 squadron on a routine training mission instructing the bombers to fly beyond their fail safe distance. At this point the flight crew are trained to cease communications and prepare to fulfill their objective by bombing Moscow. As the planes near their target, the crisis deepens and together the Americans and Soviets decide on a final, desperate solution.

  • Warren Black is a brigader general in the US Air Force who is troubled by a nightmare about a matador. Walter Groeteschele is a professor with some audacious theories about nuclear warfare. Carl Cascio is an Air Force Colonel ashamed of his low-class upbringing and is XO of Strategic Air Command's commanding general Frank Bogan. Jack Grady is an old-school Air Force Colonel who leads a squadron of Vindicator nuclear bombers. Gordon Knapp is head of a defense electronics contractor. Hubert Raskob is a visiting Congressman. Peter Buck is translator to the President of the United States. And all of these men become enveloped in the ultimate accident; when a malfunction damages SAC's fault indicator, the system is changed routinely, but it causes a malfunction in the mainframe that launches Jack Grady's squadron on an attack mission to obliterate Moscow. When the full horror of the accidental attack order becomes clear, SAC and the President must work to recall or stop the bombers, but all efforts are frustrated by the skill and working orders of the pilots involved as well as the power of their planes, and when they penetrate Soviet airspace a running sky battle erupts. But the bombers press on, and through negotiations with the Soviet premier, the President is left with but one hope of averting Armageddon, an order so audacious it even shocks the Soviet premier and leaves the President's subalters speechless.

  • Those in the Pentagon War Room are discussing the tactics, and the pros and cons of nuclear war with the Soviets. In the Room include Professor Groeteschele, the civilian adviser to the Pentagon who has an academic's viewpoint, and Brigadier General Warren Abraham "Blackie" Black. The general has been having a recurrent dream - that of a matador killing a bull - which he believes is some sort of omen relating to his job. Through a series of mechanical, technical and human errors, American bombers are deployed to investigate a potential air threat. Although the threat was non-existent, the bombers, through these errors, are ultimately sent to bomb Moscow. Because of counter-measures designed to protect orders, the bombers cannot be recalled. In addition to negotiations with the Soviet Premier, the President requests the advice of those in the War Room on what to do, the individuals there having differing opinions. But the President will make his decisions based on that advice and his discussions with the Premier. But those in mission control in Omaha, who are removed from the discussion process but are charged with carrying out the orders, may have some issue with the President's orders since they are based on discussions with the "enemy".



The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • Warren Black lives in New York City and suffers a recurring nightmare about attending a bullfight that ends in a piercing shrieking noise. The nightmare fills him with doubts about his job as a Brigadier General in the US Air Force who is assigned to nuclear weapons.

    Walter Groteschele is a professor with some audacious ideas about nuclear warfare - namely that the common conception that any exchange of nuclear weapons will inevitably and imminently lead to an all-out exchange and the annihilation of the world is wrong. He is a civilian advisor to the Defense Department and Defense Secretary Swenson.

    Frank Bogan is commanding general of Strategic Air Command, the nuclear weapons arm of the Air Force, and he possesses faith in the vast array of high-tech equipment at his disposal, enough that he leads a short-notice tour of a visiting Congressman, Hubert Raskob, of SAC headquarters - though he must roust his executive officer, Colonel Warren Cascio, from an unplanned visit with his elderly father, a drunken hillbilly who lives in a basement apartment and whose alcoholism periodically leads to violence.

    Jack Grady, a Colonel in the Air Force, leads Group Six, a squadron of Vindicator nuclear bombers, supersonic jet aircraft derived from the B-58 Hustler bombers of the latter 1950s and based near Anchorage, AL. Grady and his wingman Billy Flynn debate the utility of their fellow pilots, young men who seem more like machines than the pilots they flew with in the Second World War.

    All of these men are soon caught up when a computer malfunction at SAC headquarters results in replacement of a faulty control piece. The replacement is routine but momentarily freezes up SAC's mainframe as the array of computers reboots. It appears of no concern - except the glitch activates the Fail-Safe box aboard Group Six; at the same time all radios aboard Group Six are jammed by Soviet Russia, and when the fail-safe signal aboard the planes is verified, it leaves Grady and his men thinking that nuclear war has broken out and they must execute their final order - penetrate Soviet Russia from the North Pole and launch multi-megaton explosives onto Moscow.

    The President Of The United States now must become involved as he and his translator, Peter Buck, travel deep underground to the White House command bunker, where a "Hot Line" direct voice communicator with the Soviet Premier awaits, with Buck hearing the Russian's voice and translating his words to the President. The President, the Secretary of Defense, and General Bogan work to try and stop Group Six, but the power of the planes and the crews' unshakable working orders - orders that include disregard of all outside voice communication on the suspicion of enemy disinformation - means that the six bombers penetrate Soviet Russia and overcome the Soviet Empire's vast antiaircraft grid.

    Making matters worse, when The President innocently asks the Soviet Premier about jamming of Group Six's radios, the Russian initially lies about it, and when he finally tells the truth the President still cannot convince Group Six to disengage. A direct communication link to Soviet air defense headquarters is opened and General Bogan is forced to dragoon one of his technical sergeants into telling the Russians how to detonate nuclear-armed air-to-air missiles, thus blowing up their own planes.

    With all indications being that the bombers will reach Moscow, the President makes a deal with the Soviets - a deal so stunning as to shake even the Soviet Premier into realizing that the President's pleas that the attack is an accident are manifestly the truth, but with the sickening realization that the President's proposal is the only way to avoid omnicide.

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