“The first thing my commander heard was “uh oh.” Those words, spoken by a survivor of the 1980 Damascus Titan missile explosion—perhaps the most dramatic and significant Broken Arrow incident in American history—serve as one of the only moments of levity in all of Robert Kenner’s new documentary “Command and Control.” The scenario seems ripped from a cheesy B-movie: after using the wrong tool, a maintenance worker at a missile launch facility in Damascus, Arkansas accidentally dropped a socket which fell several stories, hit the rocket’s first-stage fuel tank, and punctured its side. As the rocket bled hypergolic fuel, the facility scrambled to evacuate all employees, quell the local panicked populace, and stop the leakage before it ignited in a fireball. Tragically the facility did explode, injuring several people and killing one Air Force airman. Miraculously, a single safety precaution prevented the actual warhead from detonating during the blast.
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-nominated nonfiction book by Eric Schlosser, the documentary meticulously reconstructs the incident and positions it within a horrifying chronology of other accidents involving nuclear weapons during the Cold War when literally thousands of such warheads peppered the United States. Kenner—and by extension Schlosser—come to the conclusion that the American system of nuclear proliferation and deterrence practically guaranteed the likelihood of such an accident. The details of this system prove more terrifying than anything related to the actual Damascus Titan incident. After all, we know that the Damascus Titan didn’t detonate since we didn’t learn about it as schoolchildren. But learning that the US had built 32,000 nuclear weapons by the 1960s? That there have been over 1,000 accidents involving nuclear weapons? That the original Manhattan Project scientists were worried that the first nuclear test explosion might have annihilated the earth’s atmosphere yet conducted it anyway? These are the things of which nightmares are made.
Score: 7 out of 10