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Fail Safe is a televised play, based on Fail-Safe, the Cold War novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, and broadcast in 2000. The play, broadcast live in black and white on CBS, starred George Clooney, Richard Dreyfuss, and Noah Wyle, and was one of the few live dramas on Americanmarker television in four decades.

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


An unknown aircraft approaches North America from Europe. American 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 is transmitted to Group Six, which consists of six Vindicator supersonic bombers and four escort fighters. Colonel Grady, the head of the group, tries to contact Omaha to verify the fail-safe order (called Positive Check), but due to Soviet radar jamming, Grady cannot hear Omaha. Concluding that the attack order and the radar jamming could only mean nuclear war, Grady commands Group Six towards Moscowmarker, their intended destination.

At meetings in Omaha, the Pentagon, and in the fallout shelter of the White Housemarker, American politicians and scholars debate the implications of the attack. Professor Groteschele, who is loosely based on John von Neumann and Herman Kahn, 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 Soviet premier and offers assistance in attacking the group. The Sovietsmarker 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 Russian 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 approach 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 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 copilot notes, "There's nothing to go home to."

After the American bomber destroys Moscow, the American President orders an American bomber to destroy New York Citymarker at the same time. 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 wife and child of the pilot of the American bomber [played by Harvey Keitel] are also in New York at the time he destroys it.


  • In the film version, Colonel Grady is portrayed as grimly set on his mission, jetting toward Armageddon despite all pleas to turn back. In the 2000 version, George Clooney portrays the Colonel as a sensitive officer deeply committed to his duty. At the end, when his son speaks to him, begging him not to drop the bomb just moments before the planned launch, Grady says, "I love you Tommy. You're my boy. Remember that I love you so much."

  • The "Vindicator" bombers were inventions for the novel; their defensive capabilities were similar to those of the B-52 Stratofortress, and their flying characteristics more like the B-58 Hustler. The 2000 TV movie used B-1 Lancer bombers to represent the Vindicators, though the cockpit set represented the cockpit of a B-52 instead, most easily identified by the window configuration and eight throttle levers.

  • The title refers to what could be called an "engineer's commandment": "fail safe", meaning that a piece of equipment or process should fail into a safe condition, rather than failing into a dangerous condition (although the term also owes to the definition as "a system that has been structured such that it cannot fail)." The title's irony is that, in this case, it is assumed failure is caused by enemy attack, and that the "safe" response is to follow the last authenticated orders at all costs.

  • This is one of the first times that Clooney and Wyle worked together since ER. The ER episode "Ambush", which starred both actors, was also broadcast live.


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