Fail Safe (2000)


Fail Safe is a 2000 televised broadcast play, based on Fail-Safe, the Cold War novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler. The play, broadcast live in black and white on CBS, starred George Clooney, Richard Dreyfuss, Harvey Keitel, and Noah Wyle, and was one of the few live dramas on American television since its Golden Age in the 1950s and 1960s.

The broadcast was introduced by Walter Cronkite (his introduction, also broadcast in black and white, is included in the DVD releases of the film): it was directed by veteran British filmmaker Stephen Frears.

The novel was first adapted into a 1964 film of the same name directed by Sidney Lumet; the TV version is shorter than the 1964 film due to commercial airtime and omits a number of subplots.


The time is the early-to-mid-1960s, the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. An unknown aircraft approaches North America from Europe. American Vindicator bombers of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) are scrambled to their fail safe points near Russia. The bombers have orders not to proceed past their fail safe points without receiving a special attack code. The original “threat” is proven to be innocuous and recall orders are issued. However, due to a technical failure, the attack code, CAP811, is transmitted to Group Six, which consists of six Vindicator supersonic bombers and four escort fighters. Colonel Grady, the commanding pilot of Group Six, tries to contact SAC headquarters in Omaha to verify the fail-safe order (called Positive Check), but due to Soviet radio jamming, Grady cannot hear Omaha. Concluding that the attack order and the radio jamming could only mean war, Grady commands Group Six towards Moscow, their intended destination.

At meetings in Omaha, the Pentagon, and in the fallout shelter of the White House, American politicians and scholars debate the implications of the attack. Professor Groteschele suggests the United States follow this accidental attack with a full-scale attack to force the Soviets to surrender.

The President orders the Air Force to send the four escort fighters after the bombers to shoot down the Vindicators. The attempt is to show that the Vindicator attack is an accident, not a full-scale nuclear assault. After using their afterburners in an attempt to catch the bombers, the fighters run out of fuel and crash, dooming the pilots to die of exposure in the Arctic Sea. The fighters fail to destroy any bombers.

The President of the United States contacts the Premier of the Soviet Union and offers assistance in attacking the group. The Soviets decline at first; then they decide to accept help.

Meanwhile, the Soviet PVO Strany air defense corps has managed to shoot down two of the six planes. After accepting American help they shoot down two more planes. Two bombers remain on course to Moscow. One is a decoy and carries no bombs. The other carries two 20 megaton devices. General Bogan tells Marshal Nevsky, the Soviet commander, to ignore the decoy plane because it is harmless. Nevsky, who mistrusts Bogan, instead orders his Soviet aircraft to pursue the decoy aircraft. The Soviet fighters are then out of position to intercept the final American bomber. The decoy’s feint guarantees that the remaining bomber can successfully attack. Following the failure, Nevsky collapses.

As the bomber approaches Moscow, Colonel Grady opens up the radio to contact SAC to inform them that they are about to make the strike. As a last-minute measure, the Soviets fire a barrage of nuclear-tipped missiles to form a fireball in an attempt to knock the low-flying Vindicator out of the sky. The bomber shoots up two decoy missiles, which successfully leads the Soviet missiles high in the air and Colonel Grady’s plane survives.

With the radio open, the President attempts to persuade Grady that there is no war. Grady’s son also attempts to convince him. Under standing orders that such a late recall attempt must be a Soviet trick, Grady ignores them. Grady tells his crew that “We’re not just walking wounded, we’re walking dead men,” due to radiation from the Soviet missiles. He intends to fly the aircraft over Moscow and detonate the bombs in the plane. His co-pilot notes, “There’s nothing to go home to.” Meanwhile, the American president has ordered another American bomber to circle over New York with a 40-megaton payload, which should be dropped in case of the bombing of Moscow. The American ambassador in Moscow reports about the final moments of the Soviet capital before being vaporized from the blast.

The American bomber receives an order to drop its bombs over New York in order for the destruction of Moscow to be reciprocated and a Third World War avoided. It was earlier revealed that the American President’s wife was in New York while the events of the film transpired, meaning she would be killed in the blast. The pilot of the American bomber, General Black, commits suicide with a lethal injection just after releasing the bombs.


  • Walter Cronkite as Host.
  • Richard Dreyfuss as The President.
  • Noah Wyle as Buck.
  • Brian Dennehy as General Bogan.
  • Sam Elliott as Congressman Raskob.
  • James Cromwell as Gordon Knapp.
  • John Diehl as Colonel Cascio.
  • Hank Azaria as Professor Groeteschele (loosely based on John von Neumann and Herman Kahn).
  • Norman Lloyd as Defence Secretary Swenson.
  • Bill Smitrovich as General Stark.
  • Don Cheadle as 1st Lieutenant Jimmy Pierce.
  • George Clooney as Colonel Jack Grady.
  • Harvey Keitel as Brigadier General Warren A. Black.
  • Doris Belack as Mrs. Jennie Johnson.
  • Tommy Hinkley as Sergeant Collins.
  • Thom Mathews as Billy Flynn.
  • Cynthia Ettinger as Betty Black.
  • Will Rothhaar as Tom Grady (Colonel Grady’s son, serving the same role in the plot as Grady’s wife in the 1964 film).


The April 9, 2000 presentation was the first live broadcast of a dramatic movie (a televised play) on CBS since May 1960. The production was shot, and aired, in black and white (the same format as the 1964 theatrical film), using 22 cameras on multiple sets.

See also:

  • The Bedford Incident, a 1965 film based on a novel about an engagement between an American destroyer and a Soviet submarine in the North Atlantic.
  • By Dawn’s Early Light, a 1990 TV film based on the novel Trinity’s Child by William Prochnau, about an accidental nuclear attack on the US and the subsequent desperate attempts to avoid nuclear annihilation.


  • The movie was performed on live television in black and white, and required two soundstages on the Warner Brothers studio lot.
    • Harvey Keitel (Brigadier General Warren Black) had to run between the two stages for some of his scenes.
  • The computer in the command centre is made up from components of a real IBM AN/FSQ-7 Combat Direction Central, built in 1954 to protect the US from Soviet bomber attack.
    • It was the largest and heaviest computer system ever built, the full system weighed six thousand tons (twelve million pounds, or 5,443.1 metric tons), and took up an entire floor of a bomb-proof blockhouse.
    • Components of decommissioned systems were sold for scrap and bought by film and television production companies who wanted futuristic looking computers, despite the fact they were built in the 1950s.
    • The components used in this film were previously used in The Time Tunnel (1966), The Towering Inferno (1974), and Independence Day (1996), amongst many others.
  • The first feature-length fictional show broadcast live on CBS in 40 years.
  • George Clooney wanted the show broadcast in black and white both for stylistic reasons (as it was set in the 1960s), and because live broadcasting produced garish colour.
  • During the live broadcast, a tape of the last dress rehearsal was available for broadcast, just in case some technical problem interrupted the live performance, so that there would be no interruption of the broadcast.
  • The big board depicting the bomber’s position was designed to automatically compensate for the cast members accidentally jumping ahead in the script.

Production & Filming Details

  • Director(s):
    • Stephen Frears.
    • Martin Pasetta … (director: live broadcast) (as Martin A. Pasetta Jr).
  • Producer(s):
    • Walter Bernstein … co-executive producer.
    • George Clooney … executive producer.
    • Amy Minda Cohen … coordinating producer.
    • Tom Park … producer.
    • Harvey Wheeler … co-executive producer.
    • Eric J. Wilker … associate producer.
    • Pamela Oas Williams … executive producer.
    • Laura Ziskin … executive producer.
  • Writer(s):
    • Eugene Burdick … (novel).
    • Harvey Wheeler … (novel).
    • Walter Bernstein … (teleplay).
  • Music:
  • Cinematography:
    • John A. Alonzo … (as John Alonzo).
  • Editor(s):
  • Production:
    • Maysville Pictures.
    • Warner Bros. Television (in association with).
  • Distributor(s):
    • CBS (2000) (USA) (TV).
    • CHEK-TV (2000) (Canada) (TV) (British Columbia).
    • Argentina Video Home (2000) (Argentina) (VHS).
    • Audio Visual Enterprises (2000) (Greece) (VHS).
    • Warner Home Video (2001) (Germany) (DVD).
    • Warner Home Video (2007) (USA) (DVD).
  • Release Date: 09 April 2000 (US).
  • Running time: 86 minutes.
  • Rating: PG.
  • Country: US.
  • Language: English.

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