Fail Safe (1964) accomplishes a lot with very little. Almost the entire movie is shot on just four sets. There is no score. Many of the shots are closeups, which feels appropriate to the crisis atmosphere. The movie succeeds because it has a solid plot and solid acting from such actors as Henry Fonda, Dan O’Herlihy, Walter Matthau and Frank Overton.
Fail Safe was compared unfavorably to Dr. Strangelove when it first came out (a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis). Both show how a nuclear war might happen accidentally between the Soviet Union and the United States. Strangelove is superior, but, judged on its merits, Fail Safe is a strong entry in the Cold War genre.
The story begins at Strategic Air Command in Omaha, Nebraska, where an off-course airliner is mistaken for a Soviet intruder. Although the officers on duty quickly realize the mistake, the computer does not and orders a bomber group to lift off and attack Moscow.
The president (Fonda) and his advisors attempt to recall the bombers. Their efforts fail due to Soviet radar jamming and American military regulations, which bar the bomber commander from accepting last-minute changes in his orders. They ultimately come up with a plan to avoid all-out nuclear war. You’ll have to decide for yourself if you find their solution believable.
The United States Air Force refused to cooperate with the production, so stock footage of American and French warplanes was used. The military insisted that the situation depicted in Fail Safe couldn’t happen in real life. Let’s hope not.