Review: Command and Control

In this entertaining and workmanlike documentary about the 1980 Titan Missile explosion in Damascus, Arkansas, Director Robert Kenner paints a sobering picture about the dangers that go with the possession of these immensely destructive weapons. 

Kenner’s film is based on the book of the same name by Eric Schlosser, which detailed the numerous accidents associated with nuclear weapons since the setting up of Sandia nuclear laboratory in 1948.

Despite being sourced from an identifiably liberal perspective, the film does an excepitional job of transcending political opinion and immersing the viewer into the lives and routines of those who work with these incredible contraptions.

in 1980, at a missile silo in Damascus, Arkansas, a propellant transfer system (PTS) team was working on a Titan II missile with a nine-megaton warhead. Following repairs, a socket was accidentally dropped some 80ft and ricocheted onto the fuselage, causing a piercing in the first-stage fuel tank that leaked the chamber with aerozine 50 fuel. On contact with the Titan II’s oxidiser, the fuel would spontaneously combust, leading the military to worry about the potential detonation of the warhead.

Had this happened, the resulting explosion and radiation could have wiped most of Arkansas off the map, and affected  people as far as Baltimore.

Despite being an accessible documentary, it does not shy away from trying to explain the technical aspects of nuclear missiles. It is rare that the scale and size of nuclear infrastructure in the United States is grasped in such a detailed way. One of the most interesting things is the young age of the operators involved. One is left pondering one’s own character when people not even in their twenties were responsible for the maintenance of thermonuclear warheads.

There is also coverage of the bureaucratic politicking and failure to honour the wounded following the incident. During the explosion, A PTS operative called David Livingstone was killed, and there are a number of moving tributes to his death. This is a sombre and introspective look into how organisations often fail to reward personal bravery until pressured through press coverage.

As someone who is avowedly supportive of nuclear weapons, and believes their contribution to be nothing less than an unprecedented global peace, this film highlights the terrible dangers that come with such ordinance, and the patchy track-record the military has had in mitigating and disclosing accidents.

One key thing to take away from the film is that the public would do well to understand more about these systems. Given the relative stability of the Post-Cold War era, an amnesia has crept in that obscures people’s conception about the consequences of a nuclear-tipped conflict. Previously, generations of school-children were brought up watching ‘duck and cover’ infomericals, or being subjected to anti-nuclear films like Threads and The Day afterWhile these films tended not to give a balanced picture, they did implant in the public consciousness a tangible understanding of how nuclear weapons worked, how a war may escalate and how accidents could occur.  

All in all, Command and Control is an excellent film that lends a sympathetic ear to the brave servicemen who controlled America’s  nuclear deterrent. It is easily accessible on Netflix and will interest audiences of all perspectives.

If you have some spare time and want to be cheered up, there is also an excellent website called Nukemap, which will I’ve you a rough estimate of your safety in the event of an exchange.


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