Film Review: Command and Control

A crisp, horrifying, investigative documentary about the nuclear missile silo disaster that nearly annihilated much of Arkansas in 1980.
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The post-9/11 adage about how security services have to be right all the time while terrorists only have to be right once could easily be adapted to Robert Kenner’s vivid new documentary: People who work with nuclear weapons only have to make one mistake for everything to go to hell. That isn’t to say that Kenner’s studiously dramatic adaptation of Eric Schlosser’s book about a mostly unknown nuclear missile silo accident that could have killed thousands is strictly in the pointing-fingers game. An “American Experience” documentary getting a brief and very earned theatrical run before its PBS debut, Command and Control tunnels deep into an institution and examines how its people responded in extremis. But instead of playing gotcha, the film presents a humane look at people demanded to perform with perfection in a system destined to at some point fail, with disastrous consequences.

As shown in the film’s remarkable trove of archival footage which Kenner impeccably blends with period-appropriate recreations, the missile silo in Damascus, Arkansas wasn’t much to look at on the outside in 1980. A huge metal door on the ground that looked like a great, wide, very-close-to-the-ground shed, a chain-link fence, and that was about it. But underneath that door was a Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile. Standing about a hundred feet tall, it was designed to deliver a nuclear payload that was itself hundreds of times more powerful than the atomic bomb that annihilated Hiroshima. A bunker complex next to the aging and accident-prone missile capable of killing 10 million people housed a squad of 18- to 24-year-old Air Force personnel. They worked in 24-hour shifts to maintain the missile and be ready to launch it at a moment’s notice. “You had to be prepared to destroy an entire civilization,” says Allan Childers, part of the Titan’s missile crew.

Building with the fast-burn intensity of a klaxon-blaring Michael Crichton novel, Kenner layers in the testimony of Childers and the rest of the crew about the gut-tightening events of September 18, 1980. A minor error, in which a maintenance worker used a ratchet instead of the newly required torque wrench to work on the Titan II, leads to an eight-pound socket being dropped into the silo and cracking open the missile’s fuel tank. The silo began filling with fuel vapor that was both toxic to the missile crew and, once it mixed with the oxidizer in the rocket’s second stage, explosive.

Using the same adroit handling of dense material that characterized his takedown of the climate change-denial industry, Merchants of Doubt, Kenner breaks off from the Damascus crisis to sketch a brief history of other nuclear mishaps. These range from the merely terrifying—a bomber and fuel tanker collided over Spain in 1966, strewing radioactive wreckage—to the mind-boggling—in 1961, a B-52 bomber broke up over North Carolina, in the process somehow arming and dropping a four-megaton H-bomb that was just one safety switch away from detonating. This nuclear-weapons infrastructure built with feverish speed to counter the Soviets was fearsome, bristling with 32,000 warheads (when as few as 50 were believed needed to annihilate the USSR), but also scrambling to track and maintain them all.

Damascus, Little Rock was one of the frayed junctures of that highly imperfect system. Once the socket fell, a nightmarishly slow drop that Kenner replays with eerie effectiveness, the stomach-churning build to disaster proceeds at an almost preordained pace. As phones rang through the Air Force command chain, emergency crews and guards descended on the silo, and locals started gathering outside, wondering what was happening, as the plumes of fuel vapor continued pouring out. Making matters worse, just as Manhattan Project scientists didn’t truly know whether the Trinity test blast decades earlier would have destroyed just a corner of the desert or set the Earth’s atmosphere on fire, even by 1980 somehow nobody in the Air Force knew for sure whether an explosion in the silo would set off the warhead. What they did know was that if the warhead detonated, Little Rock, less than 50 miles away, would be wiped off the map and much of Arkansas devastated by radiation.

As with so many of the more gripping “American Experience” documentaries, some of which Kenner has directed, Command and Control pays just as much attention to the historical record as to the experiences of the people involved. The crisis mounts to an almost unbearable tenor, given extra frisson by the human toll taken on the people involved, particularly the impossibly brave missile crew members who refused at first to leave their posts or the maintenance workers who dashed back in to the ticking-bomb silo. The result is a powerful examination not so much of inevitable human error but the far more fixable problem of clumsy bureaucracies with inordinate faith in mechanical systems destined to eventually fail.

Almost the most frightening aspect about Command and Control is not how much wasn’t known about the dangers inherent in a sprawling and impossible-to-maintain nuclear arsenal, but how much was right there in plain sight, just waiting for the mistake that just has to happen once.

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