'Command and Control': Tribeca Review

Command and Control - H 2016
Courtesy of PBS/American Experience
A frightening episode providing more ammo for anti-nuke activists.

See how one stray wrench socket nearly destroyed the state of Arkansas.

Using one terrifying incident to sell a larger anti-proliferation message, Robert Kenner's Command and Control pushes the decommissioning of America's nuclear arsenal by showing how close a trivial 1980 mishap came to destroying most of Arkansas and blanketing the U.S. with radioactive fallout. More compelling in its beat-by-beat storytelling than it is persuasive on the larger issue, it works, like the recent The Man Who Saved the World, as an example of how many potential catastrophes slip by us in the modern world. Theatrical prospects are modest for a planned art house run this fall, but the doc will play well on public TV.

Returning to work with Eric Schlosser, a major interviewee in his 2008 documentary Food, Inc., Kenner now adapts the journalist and Pulitzer finalist's most recent book. Here we meet the men who, on Sept. 18, 1980, were tasked with maintenance of a Titan II missile carrying "the most powerful warhead that the U.S. has ever operated." It was an ordinary day at the Damascus, Arkansas, missile silo when a member of the Propellant Transfer System team let an eight-pound socket slip out of his hand, then watched as it fell several stories and bounced against the missile, knocking a small hole in its side.

As the film delivers a ticking-clock account of what happened next — fuel vapors filling the silo, the risk of explosion growing by the minute, Strategic Air Command and others around the state mapping out what will happen if an explosion triggers the nuclear device — it debunks assertions that it's impossible for nukes to trigger in such conditions. Interspersing technical talk with a quick history of nuclear testing and other near-misses, the doc demonstrates how often situations like this arise. The message being that, even with all the fail-safes and protections in the world, human-made systems do not run perfectly; and with thousands of nuclear weapons still being stored, the law of averages says one of these near-misses will eventually lead to a nuclear explosion on American soil.

Viewers not already on the film's side may remain unconvinced on the latter point, seeing the commonplace nature of accidents that haven't set off warheads as proof the system works fine. But any story in which the military can ask itself "where's the warhead?" and reply with "we don't know" should make one uncomfortable about the knowledge that we have thousands of these weapons of mass destruction hidden around us, silently threatening Americans while the world thinks it has bigger threats to worry about.

Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight)
Distributor: American Experience Films
Production company: WGBH
Director: Robert Kenner
Screenwriters: Robert Kenner, Eric Schlosser
: Robert Kenner, Melissa Robledo, Mark Samels, Eric Schlosser
Directors of photography: Paul Goldsmith, Jay Redmond
Editor: Kim Roberts
Composer: Mark Adler

Not rated, 91 minutes