“Command and Control” reveals that the greatest threat we face from nuclear weapons probably comes not from foreign enemies, like the Soviets during the Cold War, but, rather, from accidents occurring at missile sites on our own soil.
Revisiting a seemingly petty mishap that nearly led to catastrophe, the film is an enlightening and scary documentary.
Writer-director Robert Kenner, reuniting with writer Eric Schlosser (they collaborated on “Food Inc.”), presents a convincing picture of an unsafe U.S. nuclear arsenal. Based on Schlosser’s 2013 book, the film focuses on an incident that occurred in September 1980 in Damascus, Ark.
It begins when airman Dave Powell, performing routine maintenance on a Titan II missile, accidentally drops a socket from his ratchet. It plummets and punctures the missile’s fuel tank. Highly explosive rocket fuel streams into the silo.
The Titan II is a nuclear weapon 600 times more powerful than the bomb that devastated Hiroshima. Should its warhead detonate, Arkansas would be destroyed. The fallout would reach most of the nation’s eastern seaboard.
Combining footage, CGI,and interviews with Schlosser, Powell, other airmen, former defense secretary Harold Brown, and various missile builders, first responders, and others directly involved, Kenner examines events surrounding the fuel leak and chronicles eight hours of desperate efforts to remedy the situation.
As chaos ensues, soldiers, some performing heroically, struggle to carry out sometimes terrible orders from air-force superiors. A (non-nuclear) explosion and fire result in one death and severe injuries, but no nuclear disaster occurs.
Because nothing at the time was captured on camera, Kenner used footage recently shot in Arizona, at the only remaining Titan II site, along with CGI, to re-create the Arkansas location and a bit of the action.
Sometimes the material conflicts with the hardcore journalism one expects from a documentary.
At other points, it’s counterproductive. The image of the socket tumbling in slow motion cheapens Powell’s moving account of how such a picture has haunted his mind, for example.
Still, the movie is factual and dramatic.
It contains shocking accounts of the unreadiness of air-command superiors to deal with a nuclear-missile accident.
Also notable is the failure of authorities to address what truly happened.
While they blame human error and dismiss or reprimand low-level personnel, the primary culprit, we learn, is the condition of the Titan II — an aging weapon the Pentagon kept active so it could use it as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the Soviets.
We additionally find out that while the Pentagon claims that 32 nuclear-weapon accidents happened during the Cold War, the actual number exceeds 1,000.
The filmmakers detail some f those accidents in informational bits interspersed amid the primary action. In one scenario, a B-52 bomber, carrying two hydrogen bombs, broke apart over North Carolina. A single safety switch prevented a thermonuclear explosion.
There’s lots more, including the observation that 4,500 nuclear warheads currently exist in the U.S. arsenal. The oversight of these weapons is reportedly softening.
Command and Control
Three and a half stars
Starring Eric Schlosser, David Powell, Harold Brown, Bob Peurifoy
Written by Robert Kenner, Eric Schlosser
Directed by Robert Kenner
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes
Note: The film screens at the Clay in San Francisco, with Robert Kenner appearing Oct. 14 and Eric Schlosser in person Oct. 15.