It reads like the plot of a disaster film or a dystopian YA novel, but in reality, the upcoming Command and Control is a documentary about that one time we all almost died and had no idea.
On the night of September 18, 1980, Airmen David Powell and Jeffrey Plumb were assigned to carry out some “routine” maintenance on a nine-megaton warhead called Titan II. I put routine in quotes, because I feel like any time you’re working on a nuclear missile with 600 times the destructive power of the bomb that took out Hiroshima, maybe the word doesn’t apply in the strictest sense.
The 21-year-old Powell would probably agree, especially after he lost his grip on his socket wrench and it dropped 70 feet, bounced off the metal platform, and punctured the missile. Volatile rocket fuel exploded and sprayed in every direction. No one, not even seasoned military personnel, knew what to do, and the Air Force spent two days addressing the damage to both the nuclear weapon and their reputation.
I mean, worst case scenario, tens of millions of Americans could have been killed or otherwise violently affected.
Now, director Robert Kenner (the man behind documentaries like Food, Inc. and Merchants of Doubt) is framing the story for his new film, and not only does it relay the story of what happened, but it tells the story of the government conspiracy to suppress news of the incident from the general public. The Oscar-nominated director was excited about the prospect of bringing the 656-page book, penned by investigative reporter Eric Schlosser, to the screen but felt unsure at first about how to tackle it.
“This was a major book, and the techno-thriller aspect excited me, but it’s a hard one to translate. I still didn’t quite see it – until I saw the silo.”
They shot much of the film at a missile museum near Tucson, Arizona that houses the last Titan II silo in the world. As far as his vision, Kenner had this to say:
“It’s really a horror movie about machines. 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.”
Not only is the film a techno-thriller, but Command and Control proves conspiracy theorists right (at least about this), since we know the Air Force lied to both government officials and to the media about how close we all came to being annihilated. The Carter/Reagan election and the hostage crisis in Iran came hot on its heels, lending the military plenty of excuses to stop talking about the nuclear accident in Arkansas.
Schlosser had this take on it:
“They created the narrative and then shut down the story. 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 been equally covered up.”
What Kenner found even scarier than that, though, was former Secretary of Defense Harold Brown saying (in the movie) that the 1980 incident was far from uncommon.
“These things happen every day. And these things are still happening. This film is as relevant now as it was in 1980.”
Maybe not exactly, since warheads today are safer than the ones manufactured during the Cold War, but there have been accidents and mishaps that seem minor – a drum of radioactive waste that blew up in New Mexico, for one. It was another tiny human mistake that almost led to catastrophe: the wrong type of kitty litter.
The film explores things like that, plus the human cost of these errors – many of the young men involved in the cleanup of the Titan II near-disaster have reported PTSD, and the military further shamed their actions in an attempt to make the men look more responsible in the aftermath.
Kenner sums the whole thing up nicely, with a foreboding tone that might not be so crazy after you’ve read this article.
“We take this technology for granted. 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.”
“Mankind is ingenious, but maybe there’s just some some shit we shouldn’t do.”
Amen, my friend. I mean, no one is going to listen to you, but amen.
h/t: Rolling Stone
Have you ever read up on the history about the five men who had a nuclear bomb detonated 10,000 above their heads? They weren’t crazy. They weren’t being punished. All but one volunteered to do this…