If you lived on the East Coast on September 18th, 1980, you probably have no idea how close you were to death.
That night, Air Force Airmen David Powell and Jeffrey Plumb arrived at the Titan II missile silo in Damascus, Arkansas to perform routine maintenance on the massive nuclear missile. “Routine” is a relative word, of course, when dealing with a nine-megaton warhead whose destructive power was 600 times that of the atomic bomb used on Hiroshima. Powell, then 21, began to go through the standard maintenance checklist when the unthinkable happened: a socket from his wrench dropped 70 feet, bounced off the metal platform and punctured the missile, causing volatile rocket fuel to explode and spray in every direction.
While nuclear accidents known as “broken arrows” had happened before, no one had seen a situation like this. Seasoned military personnel didn’t know what to do; the Air Force spent two days controlling the damage to both the missile and the U.S. military’s reputation. Had it detonated on U.S. soil, tens of millions of people would’ve been killed or irradiated.
What sounds like a fictional Robert Ludlum novel is the basis for Command and Control, Robert Kenner’s new film based on investigative reporter Eric Schlosser’s 2014 book of the same name. The documentarian behind Food Inc. and Merchants of Doubt has long mastered the art of investigative vérité, but in retelling the story of a near-catastrophic nuclear accident and the government conspiracies that formed to suppress news of the incident from the public, he’s venturing into new territory. This is not an exploration of how we can course-correct corporate malfeasance or deal with longstanding social issues before it’s too late. This is a non-fiction autopsy of a worst-case-scenario nightmare.
“It’s really a horror movie about machines,” the director says. “We think we can make these incredibly complex machines and control them, but they’re hard to maintain. At some point, it ceases to be a human error — and becomes a systemic error.”
“We set out to do a techno-thriller in which nothing works,” adds Schlosser, “where you pull out the fancy gizmo and the battery’s dead. That’s how it really works in life. At the time, it was the most powerful warhead the U.S. had ever built. The reality of it is terrifying … and we need to be reminded of that terror.”
In 2008, Kenner and Schlosser had worked together on Food, Inc., the Oscar-nominated documentary on corporate farming based in part on Fast Food Nation, Schlosser’s 2001 expose of the fast food industry. Last year, the filmmaker approached the author with an idea for developing Command as a movie, but was unsure how to tackle and condense the 656-page book for the screen. “I couldn’t figure [it] out,” Kenner admits. “This was a major book, and the techno-thriller aspects excited me, but it’s a hard one to translate. I still didn’t quite see it — until I saw the silo.”
Kenner and his crew secured permission to shoot at a missile museum outside of Tucson, Arizona that houses the last remaining Titan II silo in the world. Using drones to film inside the museum, Kenner mainly eschewed computer graphics, giving the reenactments a terrifying verisimilitude that rests (un)comfortably with Air Force training films and newscasts. “I had presumed we were going to be using computer graphics to show the socket falling,” he says. “But it’s all in-camera other than the spray coming out of the missile. If Hollywood were to make this movie, it would cost them millions to create a 1980s Titan II missile silo. “
As Command shows, the near-disaster also proved conspiracy theorists right, as the military repeatedly lied to officials and the media about the gravity of the situation. “It was a big story for two or three days,” Schlosser says, “because an ICBM exploded and a warhead was missing for awhile, but then it vanished because there was a hostage crisis in Iran, the election between Carter and Reagan was going on and the Pentagon was adamant that there was no possibility the warhead could’ve exploded.”
“They created the narrative and then shut down the story,” he adds. “For years, they denied vehemently that there was any chance of an accidental detonation. Then I started digging and I found not only was that warhead vulnerable to an accidental detonation, but there were all kinds of other nuclear weapons accidents that could have been catastrophic on American soil that had equally been covered up.”
As former Secretary of Defense Harold Brown says in the movie, the Damascus incident was far from uncommon. “That for me that was the scariest line in the film: ‘These things happen every day,'” says Kenner. “And these things are still happening. This film is as relevant now as it was in 1980.”
“I don’t want to be apocalyptic, but for me, looking at these accidents is a way to remind people these machines are still out there, waiting to kill you. Mankind is ingenious, but maybe there’s just some shit we shouldn’t do.”
—Author Eric Schlosser
Today’s warheads are much safer than what we had during the Cold War. But accidents based on seemingly minor mishaps can have potentially devastating long-term effects. Two years ago, a drum containing radioactive waste blew up in New Mexico, costing the government an estimated $2 billion. The problem: the wrong type of kitty litter.
The film also shows the human effect of the tragedy in which one man, Airman David Livingston, died and others were severely injured. Many of the technicians who worked on the warhead and responded to the accident were in their teens and early twenties; they still suffer from PTSD over the incident. (Until 2014, Powell, the man who dropped the socket, had never told his wife or mother what had happened.) Far from being treated as heroes, the men were ostracized and castigated by the U.S. military for their “role” in the accident.
While Kenner and Schlosser admit the film was not made “for medicine,” the historical amnesia caused by the end of the Cold War has made nuclear accidents as alarming for most people as a sneeze. “We take this technology for granted,” says Kenner. “It’s almost like we’ve forgotten about it. And here’s something that could imperil the whole planet. It’s there to supposedly make us feel safer, but I don’t think we need 7,000 of them to make us feel safer.”
“These are the most dangerous machines ever invented,” Schlosser adds. “I don’t want to be apocalyptic and say it’s happening tomorrow, but for me, looking at these accidents is a way of looking at how difficult it is to control this technology, and to remind people these machines are still out there, out of sight, waiting to kill you. Mankind is ingenious, but maybe there’s just some shit we shouldn’t do.”