A documentary opening this weekend at the Edina Cinema might well be the scariest movie you see this year. Command and Control, from filmmaker Robert Kenner, goes deep into the threat posed by nuclear weapons. However, the danger here isn’t terrorists with a dirty bomb or other governments developing long-distance missiles. Instead, it’s the unnerving possibility that, through some combination of human error and oversight in military practice, one goes off on the U.S. mainland. And, of course, all it takes is one of these bombs to do unimaginable, world-changing damage.
The documentary is based on the book “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety” by journalist Eric Schlosser, of “Food Inc.” fame. Built like a Cold War thriller, the movie takes you to back 1980, when a Titan II missile exploded in Damascus, Arkansas, just north of Little Rock. Through newsreel footage and well-shot dramatic reenactments, Kenner gets you into the headspace of the men on the ground – many of which were barely more than teenagers – working to contain the disaster which was caused by the simple mishandling of a tool. Several of the survivors talk on camera, and their testimony is astounding, intensely scary and sad, in light of how the Air Force treated them afterwards.
But it’s the gut-tightening nervousness the film inspires that’s truly remarkable here. At one point, Schlosser explains what kind of bombs we’re dealing with, and how they are more powerful than all the explosives in WWII, including the atomic ones, put together. A blast from such a monster would not only wipe out a city like Washington D.C., but the fallout would kill everyone in Baltimore, half of New York City and even bring an end to some in Boston, over 400 miles away. The fact the U.S. had thousands of such weapons – in the sky, in the water, in silos, at all times – is scary, but to find out, as the film shows, that there were hundreds of accidents with them is, in the most literal use of the word, incredible.
And this image of self-destruction gets to the heart of the film: the idea that to have these weapons at all is to hold our fate in our hands. Through the telling of the Damascus disaster, Kenner argues that it’s of national, if not civilizational importance, to devote more resources to making sure the procedures that keep these dragons bottled up are the best they can be. While the film doesn’t exactly push for complete nuclear disarmament, that seems to be the logical conclusion of the argument. Either way, the fact that the U.S. alone still has thousand of nuclear weapons in its arsenal is cause for deep, existential concern. As Schlosser would put it, we got lucky during the Cold War. Now let’s just hope the luck doesn’t run out.
Command and Control is playing at the Edina Cinema.