The film begins with a fictional broadcast from the network CVN's nightly program, starring Don Tobin (Watson), with reports from correspondents Michael Boyle (Glenn) and Dorian Waldorf (Shaver), which discusses a terrorist bombing of the American embassy in Saudi Arabia that killed an American ambassador. It then recaps the previous week, which began with a global banking crisis caused by several South American countries defaulting on their loans, and leading to turmoil in the Middle East. Before the unrest spread to Saudi Arabia, Soviet-backed militants led a coup in Oman when the Omani economy collapsed. Shortly after, a new report shows that the banking crisis may soon begin to ease.
The following day, it is revealed that a large military operation was launched to keep the peace in Saudi Arabia, with many American soldiers, ships, and planes being sent at King Fahd's request. This move was heavily criticized both abroad and domestic. In response to this move, which the Soviet Union saw as provocative, the Soviet-backed puppet government in Oman imposed a $10,000 toll for every oil tanker who wished to pass through the Strait of Hormuz into the Persian Gulf. The Soviet government claimed it would remove the toll if the Americans withdrew their troops from Saudi Arabia. The captains of the tankers refused to pay the toll, effectively creating an economic blockade in which no oil could be transported through the Persian Gulf.
A breaking news alert on the fifth day of the Middle East crisis reveals a short battle between American warplanes and unidentified enemy warplanes, presumed to be from Iran or Kuwait, in which one American reconnaissance plane was shot down over the Persian Gulf, before two of the five attacking planes were shot down. The attacking aircraft were believed to be aiming for the oil refinery in Ras Tanura, in retaliation for Saudi Arabia's requesting of American troops.
On day six of the crisis, an American aircraft carrier, the USS Nimitz, and several battleships, armed with both nuclear and non-nuclear weapons, were sent by the President to the Persian Gulf to ensure the free passage of oil tankers in the region. The Soviet Union quickly responds to this action by sending submarines to the Persian Gulf.
On day eight of the crisis, in response to the growing urgency of the situation, CVN begins to broadcast 24 hours a day until further notice. The crisis deepened on this day when an Omani gunboat attacked and exploded an unarmed Dutch vessel which tried to go through the Strait of Hormuz during the night under the cover of darkness. At this point, people begin to evacuate cities, overseas air travel is suspended by the FAA, and many schools begin closing. Meanwhile, the Strategic Air Command redeploys B-52 bombers throughout the nation's airports. By nightfall, an evacuation of the White House is ordered. During the night, a battle erupts between Omani gunboats and the U.S. Navy in the Strait of Hormuz, with an Omani gunboat firing first, and subsequently being destroyed by an American warship. Despite the gravity of the situation, Tobin discusses his optimistic viewpoint of the situation with correspondent Eric Sevareid, believing that, "Reasonable people, once they've looked the Devil in the face, aren't going to shake hands with him."
Shortly after the Omani gunboat exchanged fire with the American ship, a Russian submarine slipped through the perimeter of American ships and was tracked towards the USS Nimitz, where the aircraft carrier began exploding depth charges towards the submarine, before eventually firing a nuclear depth bomb on the submarine when it got too close. A Russian submarine then fires a nuclear weapon at the Nimitz, before the Nimitz loses contact with CVN; it is presumed that the Nimitz was destroyed.
At this point, the White House is completely evacuated, with the President, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other White House officials evacuated onto the airborne command center Looking Glass, and the Emergency Broadcast System is activated. In the moments before CVN's broadcast is transferred over to the Emergency Broadcast System, Tobin reiterates his optimism, discussing the opinions of a colleague who was considered an expert in nuclear war scenarios. His colleague held the belief that a nuclear exchange would someday take place, but when the two superpowers were confronted with the horror of the situation, they would choose peace over war.
The film ends with a shot of Looking Glass taking off, with the broadcast switching over to the Emergency Broadcast System.