Weekend Watch: ‘Command and Control’ Is a Terrifying Warning About Nuclear Weapons

Where to Stream

Command and Control

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What to Stream This Weekend

Movie: Command and Control
Director: Robert Kenner
Available on: Netflix

On September 18, 1980, a maintenance crew at a nuclear missile silo just north of Damascus, Arkansas were checking the pressure on an oxidizer tank of the Titan II nuclear missile when one of them dropped a socket from a wrench. That socket dropped all the way down to the base of the missile, where it pierced the missile’s fuel tank. The tense, desperate scramble to avert the total disaster that would accompany the explosion of a nuclear missile on U.S. silo makes for the bulk of the documentary Command and Control. We’ve seen movies like The China Syndrome before, we’re familiar with the stakes of an accident at a nuclear facility. The immediacy of such an occasion is brought to terrifying life by the recollection of many of them men who were working at the missile silo that day.

But the story of Command and Control isn’t one of daring rescues and ticking clocks stopped at the last possible second. The nuclear missile silo at Damascus, Arkansas exploded in the early morning hours of September 19, killing one man and injuring several others. The nuclear warhead itself was ejected from the silo and ended up in a ditch, the only thing keeping it from exploding and incinerating a massive area, including Little Rock, was that the safety features of the warhead stayed intact. Calling the Damascus incident a “near-miss” would be an insult to the harrowing experiences of the men who recount that fateful day in Command and Control, but the specter of the disaster that might have been looms like … well, like a cloud.

What ends up making Command and Control such a particularly chilling account is that it places the Damascus event in the context of an entire nuclear age that appears to be balanced on a tightrope that can’t possibly sustain it, and overseen by a command apparatus whose left hand never seems to know what the right hand is doing. We’re taken through the development of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, from the early tests at Trinity and Bikini Atoll through the mass production of nukes during the (no pun intended) boom times of the 1950s, when an arsenal in the tens of thousands was amassed to compete with the Soviets, despite the fact that only about 200 nukes would be needed to completely annihilate America’s great rival. And all those excess weapons are residing within the borders of the Unites States, just waiting for something to go wrong.

From the very beginning, during the initial nuclear bomb tests in the South Pacific, the power of these nukes far exceeded the expectations of defense experts. However destructive we’ve thought these weapons were, they’re worse. And despite the fact that current events have Americans fearing nuclear attacks from North Korea, a movie like Command and Control reminds us that we live with the threat of a nuclear accident from our own weapons every day. We’re taken through several incidents where domestic nuclear explosions were barely averted, before we revisit the Damascus event, where a full-scale nuclear explosion nearly wiped out the southeast because someone dropped a socket wrench. Good luck sleeping after this one!

But more than just an alarmist screed, Command and Control is an eye-opening portrait of what lies beneath — literally, in the case of underground missile silos — what we think we know about nuclear weapons. After the Damascus explosion, neither a U.S. senator nor the governor of Arkansas (Bill Clinton!) nor Vice-President Mondale could seemingly get a straight answer about whether there was even a nuclear warhead at the site. Is the nuclear arsenal just a self-perpetuating, self-regulating machine? And when will that machine break down?

Where to stream Command and Control

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