Doomsday Devices: Command and Control

A reenactment of Propellant Transfer Team A, from Robert Kenner's documentary COMMAND AND CONTROL, opening September 14 at Film Forum. Courtesy of American Experience Films/PBS.

Command and Control
Directed by Robert Kenner
Opens September 14 at Film Forum

In the 1980s, psychiatrist Robert Lifton observed in Americans a kind of “psychic numbing” that had made them passively accepting of the existential specter of nuclear annihilation. This insight led to graphic expositions intended to force the public to rediscover nuclear horror reflected that dramatic films like Fail-Safe (1964) and The Bedford Incident (1965) had inspired nearly a generation earlier. Sober televised movies like The Day After (1983) in the United States and Threads (1984) in the United Kingdom horrifically brought nuclear holocaust, which mutual assured destruction had rendered latent in the popular imagination, back into collective consciousness. Jonathan Schell’s series of articles in the New Yorker (later published as the book The Fate of the Earth) also described in graphic detail the immediate and lingering effects of a nuclear explosion. Physicist Carl Sagan’s “nuclear winter” hypothesis intensified nuclear abolitionist impulses. War Games (1983), which jauntily revisited the absurd brittleness of the nuclear standoff that Kubrick’s monumental Dr. Strangelove (1963) had explored, reportedly helped prompt President Reagan to question the stability of nuclear deterrence and entertain abolition.

Robert Kenner’s compelling and tense documentary Command and Control, based on the book of the same title by Eric Schlosser, looks at the danger arguably more basic and constant than that of nuclear war in the mere deployment of nuclear weapons in supposedly safe stateside locations. In September 1980, around the time everyone started getting antsy again about the nuclear age, an Air Force technician dropped a wrench inside the underground silo of a Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile carrying the most powerful warhead (nine megatons) in the US arsenal, at a base outside Little Rock, Arkansas. The tool punctured the missile’s fuel tank and caused the fuel to explode, blowing the warhead about 100 feet from the missile complex’s entry gate. In the event, only Senior Airman David Livingston, a first responder, was killed, but the nation may have been more lucky than good on this occasion. It was among the worst of many near-miss accidents involving nuclear warheads that occurred during the Cold War.

Cleverly interspersing original footage shot in a decommissioned silo to reconstruct the nine-hour crisis with archival news reports, eyewitness accounts, and retrospective interviews, the filmmaker drives home the fundamental perverseness of building and maintaining such devastating weapons. He also makes it clear that while the technician made a mistake, the Air Force team responsible for maintaining the missiles was competent, conscientious, and proud of its role in defending the country. The salient point is that they were human, making human error inevitable. Among the present-day interviewees is Harold Brown—razor-sharp at age 88—who was secretary of defense at the time of the accident and explains a little sheepishly that the Titan II was then technically obsolete, and kept in place just to be used as a bargaining chip in arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union. This gloss sharpens the irony of deploying weapons that are too destructive to be used to sound military effect.

The threat of all-out nuclear war between major powers has of course receded. Yet Russia’s revanchist aggressiveness, North Korea’s unhinged determination to develop nuclear weapons, and the Obama administration’s plans to modernize the United States’ nuclear arsenal—as well as recent revelations of slipshod oversight at US nuclear weapons sites—make Kenner’s film more than just morbid hindsight. It forcefully reminds the audience of dangers—one of nuclear war, the other of nuclear accident—that remain present if not always clear.

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