On September 18, 1980, a technician at a Titan II missile complex in Damascus, Arkansas, dropped a tool that punctured the side of a missile, spraying rocket fuel into the silo. That may sound like a minor mishap, but the fact that the missile contained a nuclear warhead that was 600 times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima escalated the situation. Long story short – the missile exploded, but the warhead did not, and although the incident was widely publicized, the full details were covered up. Until now.
Written and directed by a pair of documentary warriors, Food, Inc.’s Robert Kenner and Fast Food Nation’s Eric Schlosser, Command and Control takes a look back at that fateful evening and pulls at the curtain, showing interviews with many of the airmen and soldiers who were working at the complex at the time. The technician who dropped the fateful socket tells his story, describing in detail how long the actual eight story fall of the wrench took and how he can still remember, clear as day, seeing the tool bounce into and poke a hole into the side of the hull. Members of Propellant Transfer System Team A, the guys responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the missiles, talk about the evacuation, rescue, and attempted prevention of the inevitable catastrophe. Even local residents of the town who, at the time, had no idea what was going on, weigh in with their thoughts.
Command and Control is as tense and suspenseful as documentary filmmaking gets, but it is, after all, a nonfiction film. It’s very well put together, with plenty of interview footage, news clips, dramatic re-enactments, and slick motion-graphics, so it’s an entertaining watch, but it was made for history buffs, and history buffs are really the only people who will truly embrace it. It reads like an episode of HBO’s “America Undercover” or PBS’s “Frontline,” a creative retelling of a sketchy section of American history, but a bland and dry one that’s as antiquated and outdated as, well, a history lesson.
All throughout the film, different national defense chiefs talk about how many nuclear accidents and near-accidents, like that at Damascus in 1980, have happened over the years, and are still happening today. At one point, one of the interviewees says that “The Titan II (missile) is an awesome weapon of war…whose only victims so far, have been Americans.” And that’s where Command and Control gets scary. Whether it’s right or wrong, the film gives the impression that America has always been close to nuclear annihilation, and they don’t even need one of their enemies to press the button.