The American president (Henry Fonda) discovers that the U.S. air force accidentally launched a bomber squadron against Moscow. Now his job is two-fold: to convince his Russian counterpart that this strike was indeed accidental and prevent retaliation; and to stop or even shoot down the U.S. planes before they can drop the bombs and start WW3. The tension is thick as various characters react to what is an untenable and horrifying situation. The acting from the entire cast is first-class: Dan O Herlihy [King of the Roaring 20's] as General Black, who must discharge the most distasteful duty of his career, to put it mildly; Fritz Weaver (who was introduced in this film) as Colonel Cascio, who is nearly driven mad by the situation and has a violent breakdown; Walter Matthau (in one of his early dramatic roles) as Groeteschele, who is coldly pragmatic when it comes to the numbers of projected casualties and the like; and especially Frank Overton [Desire Under the Elms], in the performance of his career, as the conflicted but duty-bound General Bogan. Janet Ward certainly scores in a small but pivotal role as Mrs. Grady, who desperately tries to tell her husband, the lead pilot, to turn back before it's too late. Nancy Berg, Dom DeLuise [Diary of a Bachelor] and Larry Hagman (as a translator), among others, also do well in some flavorful supporting roles. One of the best scenes has Bogan reacting after the men in the war room cheer the downing of one of the planes -- "this isn't a football game!" I don't know if I find the controversial ending to this to be especially believable, but it certainly packs a wallop. I have no doubt that when this was released people left the theater shivering in shocked silence. This was released the same year as the satirical Dr. Strangelove, which has more or less the same plot, but the more somber Fail-Safe has the edge on it. The movie could have been cut by ten or so minutes and tightened a bit, however.
Verdict: Disturbing, high-impact, and infinitely depressing. ***1/2.