By John E. Carey
Peace and Freedom
November 18, 2007
“Fail Safe” is the major motion picture that gives one of the best depictions of the awesome might the United States and Soviet Union arrayed against each other; and how the mistakes of men and machines could cause the President of the United States to destroy one of his own cites with nuclear weapons.
The film was released in the autumn of 1964, just about a year after the death of President John F. Kennedy. Lyndon Johnson was president and the war in Vietnam was ramping up as U.S. troops began to arrive in greater numbers. But the big issue of the day was the standing nuclear forces of the U.S. and U.S.S.R. and the tensions of the Cold War.
“Fail Safe” was directed by the master Sidney Lumet, based on the 1962 novel of the same name by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler. The film portrays a fictional Cold War nuclear crisis, and the US President’s attempt to end it.
“Fail Safe” features Henry Fonda as President, Walter Matthau as Professor Groteschele (a kind of mastermind of nuclear war) and a youthful Larry Hagman as the president’s Russian language translator (14 years before he starred as “J.R.” in “Dallas.”)
The core of the film is the great tension leaders sometimes find themselves under. In the film, a U.S. Air Force colonel loses his cool and orders others to disobey the president. The president is dealing by the “hot line” phone with a mercurial and distrustful Soviet leader, and U.S.A.F. pilots and air crews carry out their nuclear attack mission to the letter: even after the president tells them the attack order was mistakenly generated – because they were trained that Russians would attempt to mimic the president’s voice.
The film’s scenario features an errant aircraft probably from the Soviet Union that puts the U.S. airborne nuclear arsenal moving toward “hold” or “fail-safe” locations to await final attack orders. The original perceived “threat” to the U.S. is proven to be no threat at all, and recall orders are issued to the American bombers. However, due to a technical failure, the attack code (rather than the recall order) is transmitted to Group Six, which consists of six Vindicator supersonic bombers.
B-58s like this one were the “actors” portraying
“Vindicator” bombers in “Fail Safe.”
Colonel Grady, the head of the group, tries to contact mission control in Omaha to verify the fail-safe order (called Positive Check), but due to Soviet radio jamming, Grady cannot hear Omaha. Concluding that the fail-safe order and the radio jamming could only mean nuclear war, Grady commands the Group Six crew towards Moscow, their intended target for the day. At this point, a series of disastrous fail-safe orders come into play: the bomber crews are trained that upon receiving an attack code on the fail-safe box, there is virtually no way to supersede it; they are trained to ignore all communicated orders, on the assumption that once an attack is directed, any attempts to stop it must be Soviet trickery.
At meetings in Omaha, the Pentagon, and in the fallout shelter of the White House, American politicians, military leaders and scholars debate the implications of the attack. Professor Groeteschele suggests the United States follow this accidental attack with a full-scale attack to force the Soviets to surrender. The move shows the heightened tensions and differences of character of many kinds of men. In this film you’ll find men ready to go to nuclear war and you’ll find men trying their hardest to end the mess peacefully and without nukes exploding.
If you see “Fail Safe” in your cable TV directory or find it on the internet, you’ll have an opportunity to see a chilling and thrilling nail biter worth every second of your time.
This is the 22nd essay in our series “Leadership Ideas from the Movies,” a series our readers have responded to very positively. Thank you for the feedback!
Leadership Lessons from The movies (You’ll Never Guess which One) ( Number Twenty)
Leadership Lessons From the Movies: You’ll Never Guess Which One (Number Nineteen)