Tribeca: 'Command and Control' Filmmakers Raise Alarm About Dangers of Accidents From Nuclear Weapons

In their new film, director Robert Kenner and author Eric Schlosser create a Cold War-like thriller about a Titan-II missile meltdown.

On Sept. 18, 1980, at 6:35 p.m., two airmen conducting maintenance on a Titan-II missile siloed in Damascus, Ark., dropped a ratchet socket that pierced the skin of one of the eight-story missiles' two fuel tanks, causing a leak that risked a fuel tank explosion and the detonation of the missile’s nine-megaton nuclear warhead.

That accident set off a ticking clock as the Air Force scrambled to diagnose and attempted to defuse the problem, and it also sets the stage for Robert Kenner’s new documentary Command and Control, based on the book of the same name by Eric Schlosser, which debuted Sunday at the Tribeca Film Festival.

The doc, which will open theatrically at the Film Forum in New York on Sept. 14 and play select theaters around the country before airing on PBS’ American Experience, which produced the project, is designed to play like a Cold War thriller. By filming at the Titan Missile Museum near Tucson, Ariz,, which houses a preserved Titan-II missile site, Kenner is able to offer a minute-by-minute recreation of the harrowing event, which, combined with archival and newsreel footage, adds up to a disturbingly cautionary tale about the risks the country’s nuclear arsenal poses.

“We were attempting to make a thriller,” says Kenner, an Oscar nominee for his 2009 doc Food, Inc., which was in turn based on Schlosser’s book, Fast Food Nation. “If there’s a model we had, it was Paul Greengrass’ United 93. I think recreations can be deadly, but there was an advantage [here because] anywhere you pointed your camera, it looked so authentic. I think people won’t fully realize they are watching recreations, and that was the goal.”

Says Schlosser of dramatizing the events surrounding the Damascus accident, “What’s important about seeing these things is that they are out of sight. Literally, they are buried in bunkers and underground silos. One of the people I interviewed for the book, Harold Agnew, who was head of the Los Alamos Laboratory and a nuclear weapons designer, said that every world leader should be forced to watch a nuclear detonation because it’s hard to convey the power of these things. The last time a nuclear detonation took place above ground in the United States or the Soviet Union was, I think, 1963, so that means that youngest person who has actually seen a nuclear detonation is in his or her seventies.”

Schlosser himself became invested in the subject while investigating the future of warfare in space. A lot of the Air Force officers in the space command with whom he was speaking had begun their careers as ballistic missile launch officers. They started telling him of their experiences during the Cold War. He recalls: “One guy told me how in an underground launch complex, they’d keep their Playboys in a certain hidden area and one day, one of them caused a short circuit — all kinds of crazy stories.”

Another of the officers told him the story of the Damascus accident. “I was amazed I’d never heard it before,” says Schlosser. “It had gotten attention at the time, but then it had been forgotten. The reason it was forgotten was that the Pentagon insisted there was never any chance that the warhead could have detonated. But I did more research and I found that was a lie.”

Schlosser expected that he would spent a year or two writing a short book about that specific accident, but instead found himself delving deeper, spending about six years on the book he published in 2013. “The more I learned about it, the more accidents I found," he says. "This is a really important story about a risk that continues to this day.”

Kenner’s reaction to the book: “I’m a huge fan of Eric’s writing, having turned Fast Food Nation into Food, Inc. But that was a very different process from this process. With Food, Inc., we had to go out and find present-day stories. With Command and Control, there was an amazing story, but how do we turn it into a theatrical experience? We really had to find a missile silo to shoot it in, because there isn’t enough archival footage. I thought it was a great opportunity to remind ourselves that there is the existential threat out there. So we went out to make the most exciting, entertaining movie that will make you think about a subject that we don’t like to think about.”

As it recounts the events of the night of the Damascus accident, the film ratchets up the suspense with footage of then-Vice President Walter Mondale and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton attending a state Democratic convention in Hot Springs, Ark., which, like nearby Little Rock, was within the blast zone of the potential nuclear detonation.

Command and Control also sketches in the history of the U.S. nuclear arms program, with footage from the test site in Trinity, N.M., to examples of other accidents like one that occurred in Goldsboro, N.C., in 1980. It also includes testimony from everyone from the two airmen who dropped the socket that led to the potentially catastrophic events — one of whom admits he’s haunted by that moment to this day — to various Air Force commanders.

“The challenge was not so much getting people, it was getting them to reveal themselves,” says Kenner. “The man who dropped the socket, he’s really still shaken by this event. It was very painful for him to come talk. And he would sort of laugh after each line, so as not to reveal the pain it caused him. And I had to ask him to become back a second time.”

The interviews work their way up the chain of command to Harold Brown, who served as Secretary of Defense at the time of the accident. Brown himself delivers an ominous warning that “the degree of oversight and attention [of the country’s current nuclear arsenal] has, if anything, gotten worse.”

Schlosser observes, “There was so much departmentalized secrecy during the Cold War that the people who were literally designing our weapons and who were responsible for their safety were not being told of accidents in the field. And the guys in the field who were handling the nuclear accidents on a daily basis were not being told the fundamental safety risks with those weapons. It’s not a story of bad guys and evil guys. It’s a story of complex bureaucracies and departmentalized secrecy. I tried really hard in the book and Robby does a good job in the film of not demonizing anybody. These are complex technological systems and they are hard to control.”

Command and Control notes that the Titan-II missile program was fully deactivated by 1987, seven years after the Damascus accident. But it also states that, even after arms reduction treaties, 7,000 nuclear weapons remain on U.S. soil, and it points to an Atomic Energy Commission report that said during the course of the country’s nuclear program, there have been more than 1,000 accidents involving nuclear weapons, even if none of them has ultimately led to a nuclear explosion.

Critics might argue that the fact that there never has been a nuclear explosion on U.S. soil shows the system has worked. Responds Schlosser, “It’s one of those things that works until it doesn’t. It’s sort of like if you have a drinking problem and you drive drunk for 10 years and don’t have an accident, you can assume it’s safe to drive drunk. But most people who drive drunk and get into accidents aren’t driving drunk for the first time. There’s no question that during the Cold War our nuclear weapons were vulnerable to detonation because of an accident. The fact that it didn’t happen doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen. And I hope it never happens. But there’s a kind of complacency that has occurred.”

Adds Kenner, “As Harold Brown says at the end of the film, we have safer weapons systems today than we had in 1980, but we also take them more for granted than we ever did.”