In movies, the launching of a nuclear missile is undertaken with the utmost solemnity. Stony-faced men in military uniforms speak into big red telephones, nod silently at each other and turn keys in unison. In Robert Kenner’s Command and Control, it’s heralded by the banging of metal and the words “Uh-oh”.
In September 1980, a dropped wrench caused a chain reaction on a missile base in Arkansas: one which could have led to a nuclear warhead more powerful than all the bombs used in the Second World War combined exploding.
Of course, the fact that you’re reading a review of a documentary made 35 years later somewhat gives the ending away, but Kenner expertly drip-feeds information to keep us guessing. A combination of interviews, archive footage, reconstructions and diagrams mean we’re always exactly aware of the stakes, and the tension is raised almost imperceptibly until it becomes unbearable. A series of flashbacks to footage of nuclear weapons throughout the ages show that this is far from the first time that humanity has come alarmingly close to blowing itself up. By the time the credits roll, it feels nothing short of miraculous that it hasn’t happened already.
Kenner has compiled interviews with several key players in the incident, including military personnel, technicians, politicians and even a local radio DJ. Most of these men were in their early twenties – little more than children – when the incident occurred, but the enormity of what happened is plain to see in their faces and voices.
Meticulously crafted and deeply disturbing, Command and Control is as riveting as any fictional thriller – more so because of its chilling implications for the future. As writer Eric Schlosser tells us, “nuclear weapons are machines, and every machine ever built eventually fails.” It’s simply a matter of time.
DIRECTOR: Robert Kenner
SYNOPSIS: The story of how a case of “human error” almost led to the accidental detonation of the most powerful nuclear warhead ever built.