Command and Control (2016)

95% – Critics
76% – Audience

Command and Control Storyline

Documentary of 1980s near-nuclear ground explosion of a Titan II missile in Damascus, Arkansas in Silo 374-7, based on Eric Shlosser’s award-winning book of the same title. A riveting minute by minute account of the accident started by the failure to follow written maintenence procedures.—Odyssey10

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Command and Control Movie Reviews

A Powerful and Timely Documentary about a Cold War Accident

You won’t find much about the 1980 Damascus Titan Missile Explosion on Wikipedia. It was one of those minor Cold War mishaps that barely made it beyond the local news. A young airman was doing routine maintenance at an Arkansas ICBM site. He didn’t fully appreciate the difference between a ratchet and a socket wrench (who knew there was a difference?) and accidentally dropped the heavy steel head of his tool into the silo of an aged Titan II missile. The head punctured the skin of the missile, resulting in a fuel leak and, a few hours later, an explosion that wrecked the silo, killing one airman and wounding 21 others. Fortunately, the Titan’s nine-megaton thermonuclear warhead, the most powerful US bomb then in existence, did not explode.

This low-key but powerful documentary examines the chain of events that led to the accident and, more pertinently, looks at the wider significance of what did and didn’t happen. There are interviews with the surviving site crew and some impressive re-enactments of the sequence of events, so realistic that at first you think it must be authentic historical footage. The investigative journalist Eric Schlosser, author of an acclaimed book about the Damascus accident, had a large hand in this production and appears periodically in the film.

Knowing little about Damascus, you might be tempted to chalk it up as a calamity avoided because the safety systems in place actually worked. By the time the film is over, you won’t be so dismissive. The most serious nuclear threat to the US at this time (because it occurred on a frequent daily basis, and had little to do with international tensions) was from accidents within its own arsenal. (A similar situation must surely have prevailed in the Soviet Union.)

Are we safer now, given that there are far fewer nukes deployed and Command and Control organizations have learned from past experiences? The documentary has a clear answer, and it’s probably not the one we hoped for.

Comprehensive but one sided

This documentary is a rather good run down of the tragic events which took place at one of the American Titian II missile silos near Damascus AK. This documentary clearly explains the reasons and the errors made during an maintenance cycle of the missile itself and the subsequent damage and consequences of that event.

Unfortunately, this documentary is rather one sided. The main interviews are with ex Air Force personnel that were disciplined for their actions when they felt they should have been rewarded. As one how served in the armed forces, this is difficult to swallow as the two disciplined were rightly disciplined despite the fact they worked very hard and risked their lives to correct the issue. The fact they did so is the reason they were not court marshaled and sent to prison. One was given a rather light punishment of an LOR as he was the individual who caused the accident in the first place. The second was given an Article 15 for breaking the two man rule when dealing with nuclear weapons (he was very lucky he as not given a 20 year prison term for that). While I salute his reasons for going in alone, you just don’t do that period. I also salute his courage and gallantry in trying to resolve the problem. Again, this why he did not get prison.

All in all, this worth a look. Just remember it is one sided and the there is also an annoying drum beat of the risk of this weapon exploding in a nuclear fashion. Based on physics of these devices, that chance may not be zero but it is also not more than 1% either.

on the edge of the abyss

The message of Robert Kenner’s documentary Command and Control is crisp and scary. Atomic weapons are man-made machines. Man-made machines sooner or later break. A very serious accident, or even atomic apocalypse is only a matter of time. Actually a very serious accident did happen in 1980 at a nuclear missile in Arkansas, when the area around, the continent and maybe the whole world was close to a disaster maybe similar in proportions to the one that happened in Chernobyl in Ukraine (than part of the Soviet Union) a few years later.

I liked the low-key documentary style of this production. The authors restrained from commenting too much (although there are a few punch lines) and let the facts speak. It is amazing how much filmed material was available if we are taking into account the classified nature of the events that took place. We can also draw some conclusions, this being mostly left to us, viewers. At the end of the day the safety systems in place worked, but the wrong decisions of the human factors did not lack either. What was different from the incident in the Soviet Union besides the very existence and quality of the safety equipment was also the fact that the decisions were made at a relative low level, and eventually the right decisions prevailed. Heroism was there, at least one precious life was lost, and several people remained with physical and psychological traumas, not to speak about the imposed silence about the events. For these people the film is an act of recovery and rehabilitation which seems to be well deserved.

One more thought could not escape me when seeing this film – how young the heroes of this story were. The safety of the nuclear devices was put in the hands of very young people in uniform, who were only a few years before just kids. Many of the members of the emergency teams were also very young. Maybe one day a film needs to be made about those kids, or men and women who have been so recently kids to whom we trust not only the manipulation of deadly weapons, but the very existence of the planet and of life on it.