The folly of man and the inevitability of disaster are the twin engines powering “Command and Control,” a riveting and dismaying documentary from “Food, Inc.” director Robert Kenner about a 1980 nuclear disaster that took place just outside Little Rock, Ark. Based on the harrowing book by Eric Schlosser (who not only co-wrote, but also appears in the film), this unsettling production — made in concert with PBS’ “American Experience” — is equal parts history lesson, cautionary tale and nerve-rattling thriller, using all manner of nonfiction devices to elicit both horror and outrage over the precariousness of our deadliest arsenals.
Delivering one propulsive bombshell after another, while presenting a chilling vision of mankind’s helplessness to prevent its own destruction, it’s a work whose theatrical potential — kicking off Sept. 14 at New York’s Film Forum, then expanding to other cities before its broadcast premiere — would seem to be only slightly less explosive than the nukes with which it’s so concerned.
On Sept. 19, 1980, the lethal warhead in question was attached to a musty old Titan II missile buried in an underground silo in Damascus, Ark. — an outdated weapon that, according to then-Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, was being kept around largely as a trade-chip for negotiations with the Soviets. It was maintained by a missile combat crew and Propellant Transfer Team (PTS) that used a variety of checklists and security protocols to keep its oxidizer and fuel tanks in perfect balance to avoid a detonation — until the day PTS member Dave Powell’s decision to service the missile’s oxygen tank with a ratchet instead of a torque wrench caused him to drop a socket down to the silo’s floor, where it bounced directly into the side of the Titan II, creating a hole from which fuel began uncontrollably spewing.
As Powell states in hindsight, he can still see that socket tumbling out of his grasp, and director Kenner allows us to do likewise, courtesy of expert dramatic recreations that provide an up-close-and-personal snapshot of this and other critical moments, as well as via CGI tours through, and cross-sections of, the Damascus site’s subterranean chambers.
Also utilizing considerable archival materials, “Command and Control” digs into the hour-by-hour specifics of the military response to this incident, which soon involved not only Damascus’ crew and PTS professionals, but commanders in Little Rock, Denver and Louisiana, as well as experts from Sandia Laboratories — the U.S.’s veritable “bomb factory,” where “money was free” and unimaginable weapons were not only imagined, but manufactured on assembly lines.
Even further expanding his material’s scope, Kenner interviews a local farmer who was driving by the scene and radio host Sid King, who arrived at the site once it was clear that a tragedy might be occurring. Those from-the-outside perspectives ably complement the wealth of anecdotes and accounts from the mostly inexperienced team that sprung into action to avert disaster.
As if a potential nuclear explosion — one whose power would be three times that of every bomb dropped in WWII combined — wasn’t terrifying enough, this incident was occurring at precisely the same moment as a political convention just 46 miles away in Little Rock attended by vice president Walter Mondale, Arkansas governor Bill Clinton and democratic senator David Pryor. “Command and Control” lays out its mounting stakes with dramatic precision, allowing the alarming scale of its story to build with each new revelation — including the fact that no one seemed to know exactly what might happen to the nuclear warhead should the Titan II blow.
Kenner handles this multifaceted action with a deft hand, all while intermittently seguing back to prior incidents in which nuclear fail-safe procedures proved less than airtight. By the time Sandia’s weapons safety expert Bob Peurifoy pronounces, “It will happen,” with regard to a forthcoming nuclear accident, and Brown admits that nuclear weapons oversight is even worse today than it was in 1980, “Command and Control” has long since made a chilling case for the unreliability of America’s arsenal-related guidelines, and the perils of proliferation.