Robert Kenner's fascinating “Command and Control,” is a documentary that provides a terrifying minute-by-minute account of how a butterfingered mechanic nearly toasted 10 million unsuspecting midwesterners on Sept. 18, 1980.
Love ’em or hate ’em, Bill and Hillary Clinton have been political forces in Washington for 25 years. No news there; but did you know that both – along with Walter Mondale – came within a whisker of being incinerated in a nuclear blast when the former president was the governor of Arkansas? That “what if?” is just part of the juicy bits to be culled from Robert Kenner’s fascinating “Command and Control,” a documentary that provides a terrifying minute-by-minute account of how a butterfingered mechanic nearly toasted 10 million unsuspecting midwesterners on Sept. 18, 1980.
The potential ground zero was an isolated Titan 2 missile silo in the boondocks of Damascus, Ark. It was there that two technicians armed with nothing but a 3-foot ratchet and a loosely attached 8-pound socket exposed what just may be America’s most dire threat – us. Yes, us. Or, more precisely, an aging nuclear arsenal that has the very real potential to accidentally detonate on our soil at any minute.
Like his previous documentaries, “Food, Inc.” and “Merchants of Doubt,” Kenner is vociferously calling our attention to the many ways our dysfunctional government isn’t just frustrating us; it’s threatening us through its own lack of foresight – in this case, Uncle Sam overlooking the possibility of mechanical failure in a field where one tiny mistake could torch an entire region of the country. As one of Kenner’s numerous talking heads points out: It hasn’t happened yet, but it’s only a matter of time.
“The United States has built about 70,000 nuclear weapons,” points out author Eric Schlosser, whose book “Command and Control” served as a blueprint for the film. That none of them ever detonated by accident, he says, is pure luck. “And the problem with luck is that it eventually runs out. Nuclear weapons are machines, and every machine ever invented eventually goes wrong.”
As former director of weapons development Bob Peurifoy bluntly puts it, “Nuclear weapons will always have a chance of an accidental detonation. It will happen. It may be tomorrow, or it may be a million years from now. But it will happen.”
What makes these dire predictions so ominous is, as the film reports, more than a 1,000 incidents of “broken arrows” (the term for nuclear accidents) in the past 60-or-so years, including a particularly scary event in North Carolina, where an armed B-52 broke up in midair, sending its nuclear payload precariously crashing to the ground. And if not for what Schlosser terms “luck,” the Tar Heel state would have been the Char Heel state.
Kenner includes a handful of other near-misses, but his focus is mainly on the Arkansas incident, which was triggered when that 8-pound socket slipped off the ratchet, fell eight stories and punctured one of the ICBM’s fuel tanks, causing a leak that would eventually explode. The bigger worry was if that blast would also trigger the missile’s warhead, killing everything in a hundred-mile radius, including the Clintons in Little Rock, where they were hosting Mondale on one of his campaign stops during the 1980 presidential election.
The meat of Kenner’s story is the heroics of the Air Force technicians who risked their lives attempting to keep the Titan from exploding. It adds a personal touch that immensely humanizes a story that could easily get lost in the minutia. Where Kenner bogs down a bit is in his choice to repeatedly interrupt their recollections of the events of Sept. 18, 1980, with a history of the U.S. nuclear program since Los Alamos. It offers nothing we didn’t already know and leaves less time for the compelling testimony of the airmen who somehow kept their cool while literally sitting on top of a time bomb. You hang on their every word as they recount how they stared death in the face without blinking. But what leaves you shaking is the very real possibility that next time “luck” will no longer be on our side. And that is what’s truly frightening.
COMMAND AND CONTROL (Not rated.) A documentary by Robert Kenner featuring Allan Childers, Rodney Holder and Eric Schlosser. Grade: B