By Elias Savada.
I had nearly forgotten about that nuclear blip a third of a century ago, the one which is the core of Robert Kenner’s new feature Command and Control. It was a missile crisis that nearly wiped out Arkansas and a nice chunk of the United States. So, are you in the mood for a gripping tale that will scare the bejesus out of you? Here’s one that might soil your pants.
After the film ends an hour and a half later, it will be hard not to remember the harrowing two-day episode from September 1980 at Titan II Missile Complex 374-7, in the miniscule town of Damascus (1980 population: 300+). After watching Kenner’s intense re-creation, you’ll contemplate the fine mimicry he’s used. You might be mesmerized at his fly-on-the-wall examination of what happened in the aftermath of a repairman who dropped a clunky tool in an underground rocket silo, and, oops, broke a missile.
Of course, no one was recording the events at the time, at least from the inside, as the staff wrestled with the escalating situation. Sure, there were numerous television crews covering the story. But, damn, you could swear that Kenner – best known for his documentaries Food, Inc. (2008) and Merchants of Doubt, the 2014 look at the pundits-for-hire industry – was right there with a variety of era-specific film and video equipment catching the fuzzy 8mm or dirty 16mm or jittery low-definition tension (with a variety of color desaturation levels, blurry slow motion effects, and unsettling camera angles) as any embedded journalist could and would. Even once you realize what’s happening from a cinematographic POV (the archival look is courtesy of directors of photography Paul Goldsmith and Jay Redmond), Kenner and his editor, Kim Roberts, piece the film together with quite the air of anxiety and simulated authenticity (gotta love the mustard on a sandwich clip), enhanced by a moody, dissonant score by Mark Adler and the film’s absorbing sound design. The unnamed cast of re-enactors don’t spoil the fun, although the nail-biting episode was certainly no laughing matter.
Kenner did take many eyewitness accounts into mind when he started work on the film. There are over a dozen very eloquent talking heads with genuine testimony from Air Force personnel, various on-the-record politicians, local yokels, the weapon designers, and Eric Schlosser, the author whose 2013 book the film is based (and who also penned Fast Food Nation, the starting point of Food, Inc.), who were wondering if the nuclear warhead – one 600 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima – atop a leaking missile would eventually explode.
It’s obvious where Kenner is heading with his film. As he builds up the concern we should have about the nuclear arsenals being housed in our backyards, the armed-to-the-teeth facts roll out with increasing trepidation about our weapons of mass destruction. When the image of a huge orange atomic blast cloud morphs into the rim of an armed underground silo, the point is blatantly obvious. Yes, the fear of the Cold War demanded an over-abundant, preventive medicine approach (whether carried in the air, under the sea, or not-so-well-hidden underground), but Command and Control extols the point that the United States has been more likely to accidentally “bomb” itself rather than having the Soviet Union launch a nuclear attack on American soil. Not a hard task when Schlosser reminds us that by the mid-1960s, we had over 32,000 nuclear weapons at our disposal.
Accidents waiting to happen. Many did.
While Kenner teases the disaster that lay ahead as the film begins, he stops to provide context. In hindsight, it’s quite damning. So is much of American history.
When the film switches into real life adventure mode, it’s with a very determined look, even if the “cast” is just pushing the story along. Kenner uses the actors as pawns (costumed in apparently the same uniforms and bomb disposal suits – or whatever those astronaut-look-alike get-ups the Air Force’s Propellant Transfer System unit were wearing) that stand in for the PTS team as they talk on- and off-screen.
Bob Puerifoy, Director of Weapon Development for Sandia Laboratories, remarks during the film that “bombs are relatively dumb,” as part of a discussion on another near disaster in North Carolina in 1961, when a single safety switch prevented a nuclear disaster. Imagine if hacking was as prolific then (or in 1980) as it is today, and certainly our government should have provided more than an ounce of prevention to safeguard the public from such megaton accidents.
The crisscross editing strategy makes a more interesting piece, providing some background on earlier near misses, before cutting to the pressing tale within the 1980 missile complex, often intercut with the primary PST team recounting their story. I can’t say if this or that machine or gauge was a facsimile of the originals, as only a scientist with nuclear training would notice. For the rest of us, we just go with the flow.
Despite the fakery, Kenner and his crew stay true to their story, and it’s sure to satisfy as much as any thriller. Command and Control is one heck of a deadly doomsday scenario. America survived this 1980 explosion. Despite the last of the Titan II silos being destroyed back in 1987, we are still left to wonder: Is there another nuclear accident waiting to happen?
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).