As he did with his excellent 2014 film based on Naomi Oreskes’s book “Merchants of Doubt,” documentarian Robert Kenner has taken journalistic inspiration for his new film. Cutting between a minute-by-minute breakdown of a notorious 1980 accident involving a Titan II nuclear missile in rural Arkansas and a deep, contextual history of the U.S. nuclear weapons program, “Command and Control” draws on investigative reporter Eric Schlosser’s 2013 account of that accident to pose troubling questions about how safe it is to house these “birds,” as the nukes are known, in our own back yard.
That 1980 event — a non-nuclear explosion that catapulted the warhead into a nearby ditch without detonating it — was triggered by a leaking fuel tank that ruptured when a worker dropped a tool down the well of an eight-story silo. It should have been a wake-up call to the dangers of nuclear missile accidents on American soil — after all, the incident was not the first “broken arrow,” as such mishaps are euphemistically called — but it doesn’t seem to have been. As Schlosser puts it, somewhat mildly, “The weapons were nowhere near as safe as we all had assumed.” Yet there is little evidence that safeguards have been put in place.
In other words, if a repairman with butterfingers can cause a nuclear warhead to go flying like a potentially deadly Champagne cork into the middle of Arkansas farmland, how susceptible are we to more intentional acts of sabotage?
Kenner stages his story like a thriller, using the reminiscences of those who were on site to unspool the white-knuckle story. But the film loses momentum when it cuts away to discuss, say, the 1945 Trinity test site in New Mexico and the (pun intended) explosive growth of our nuclear weapons arsenal. It may prove useful to know, for example, that a couple hundred warheads were once thought sufficient to destroy the Soviet Union, and that the number of American missiles would ultimately grow to tens of thousands. But these digressions damp the suspense built by the main story.
That’s because the 1980 incident isn’t the film’s central point. The film’s real message is that we should be more frightened by the nearly 2,000 nuclear warheads that are still deployed, like ticking time bombs, around our vulnerable nation. Far from being a historical cautionary tale, “Command and Control” looks forward, not backward. Kenner’s unsettling film casts its worried gaze not at the accidents that already have taken place, but at the ones yet to happen.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains some coarse language. 92 minutes.