Accidental Activist

Amy Taubin on Robert Kenner's Command and Control

Robert Kenner, Command and Control, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 92 minutes.

AS WHITE-KNUCKLE SUSPENSEFUL as any movie you are likely to see this year, Robert Kenner’s Command and Control is a documentary about a nuclear near-disaster that occurred in 1980 at the Titan II missile complex in Damascus, Arkansas. Masterfully constructed, the film is a nuclear-arsenal procedural that takes us step by step through the chaos that ensued when an accidentally dropped socket during a routine inspection punctured the missile’s casing, causing a fuel leak, which led to a massive fire and explosion in the facility. What followed this initial “human error” was a desperate attempt by Air Force personnel at all levels, weapons designers, and first-responders (most of them in conflict with one another and none of them with a clear strategy) to avert the detonation of the Titan II warhead.

Six-hundred times more powerful than the atomic bomb the US dropped on Hiroshima, the warhead could have leveled the state of Arkansas and blanketed the US with radioactive fallout from coast to coast. But Command and Control is not only a terrifying narrative about a disaster that did not come to pass—although one person died and many were left scarred psychologically, some physically—it is a cautionary tale for the present and future. The Titan II has been decommissioned, but seven thousand nuclear weapons are in place throughout the United States, vulnerable to unforeseen accidents that continue to occur and to a new wrinkle: Hackers could break into their systems and take command and control.

Based on Eric Schlosser’s award-winning 2013 book of the same name, Command and Control was scripted by Kenner and Schlosser, who previously teamed on Food Inc., also based on a book by Schlosser, his 2001 Fast Food Nation. The documentary is built around a brilliant and emotionally harrowing set of interviews with people directly involved with the 1980 event. Their stories are illustrated by still photographs, news footage, and recreations of the events of a night they describe in detail as if it were yesterday. Among the interview subjects are members of the “propellant transfer team,” including the two who committed the human error; several more senior Airforce members; two engineers from Sandia, the nuclear weapons building lab; and Harold Brown, Secretary of Defense in the Carter administration. Most of the experts who should have been giving orders just didn’t have a clue, and a few of them are still beating themselves up about how little they knew when the unexpected happened—as it inevitably does.

Key to the making of Command and Control was the Titan Missile Museum in Green Valley, Arizona. The last remaining Titan II site, it is nearly a replica of the Damascus space. Kenner uses it to visualize and make palpable the collective first-person narration created by the interviewees. Thus when Dave Powell describes how his twenty-one-year-old self watched in horror as the socket he was attempting to tighten slipped from his wrench and fell seventy feet down the silo to pierce the missile, we see the silo and that small piece of metal falling in slow motion, the long narrow space shadowy and oddly angled, as it must have appeared to Powell on that night and as it returns to him in dreams. And the control room, with its dial-up phones, analog switchers, and flashing alarms, could have been a set for a 1960s sci-fi movie, except that it’s the real thing. Which is terrifying. Why would anyone have believed that the most powerful explosive device ever made could be controlled with such garbage technology? Certainly we are better equipped in the digital age to build and maintain nuclear weapons. But as Schlossser explains toward the end of the film, accidents continue to happen, because “nuclear weapons are machines, and eventually machines go wrong.”

Command and Control runs September 14 through September 27 at Film Forum in New York. Kenner and Schlosser will appear for Q&As after the 7 PM shows on September 14, 16, and 17.