2016, Movies

Command and Control (2016, Robert Kenner)

“I couldn’t calm down. I was on fire.”

Now that more and more information from the Cold War has been declassified, we are starting to learn much more about how many times the nuclear arms race came close to disaster. This film is about one particular accident – turns out, it’s one of many (1,000+) – which almost destroyed Little Rock, Arkansas. The film uses recreations plus interview footage to create a riveting portrait of the accident. But it’s not just that. It’s also a compelling indictment of nuclear weapons policy.

“If the system worked properly, someone dropping a tool couldn’t send a nuclear warhead into a field.”

It turns out there were so many accidents – way more than the 32 publicly acknowledged earlier – but many of the people with responsibility for the nuclear weapons program were never informed about the accidents because of bureaucracy or, incredibly, because they were deemed to not have high enough clearance. That’s just mind-blowing.

What is less mind-blowing and, unfortunately, entirely predictable, is the way the Air Force treated the people involved in trying to prevent or minimize the accident. It’s shameful, but it’s entirely within the usual behaviour of large bureaucracies (especially military ones) to blame the men on the ground, and to forget about the people who did the dirty work.

Though a fairly conventional documentary, with some pretty mediocre recreations and some seemingly unrelated clips from the past, the story is so compelling, and the interviews are so moving (or mind-blowing) that the film becomes pretty essential viewing.

Particularly essential is the message: there are still thousands of nuclear weapons in the US (and the rest of the world), there is less oversight in the US than ever before, and probability says that, eventually, one of them will indeed explode. (Yes, that makes this a “Thank Science I live in Canada” film.)

Really worth your time.


PS Bad choice on the Radiohead song for the closing credits, though.

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