Arts movie review

How a nuclear missile and falling socket almost obliterated Arkansas

A suspenseful cautionary tale about a near-nuclear disaster on U.S. soil

7899  1   titan missile  courtesy of american experience filmspbs
Titan Missile
7900  1   titan missile  courtesy of american experience filmspbs
Titan Missile
7903  1   titan missile  courtesy of american experience filmspbs
A Titan II Missile exploded in Arkansas.
Courtesy of American Experience Films/PBS


Command and Control

Directed by Robert Kenner

Not Rated

Now Playing at the Kendall Square Cinema

On September 18, 1980, Arkansas was almost obliterated when a mechanic dropped a heavy socket down a shaft, puncturing the fuel tank of a Titan II missile carrying a nuclear warhead. If nothing else, this documentary will inspire engineers striving to build redundant, foolproof safety measures on their dangerous devices.  

Command and Control combined interviews and eyewitness accounts from the airmen and mechanics involved, congressmen, and the then-Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, to tell the story of the narrowly avoided catastrophe in Damascus, Arkansas. The documentary is based on a book of the same title by Eric Schlosser, who is also interviewed in the film.

Several haunting facts are dropped throughout the film, including that when the first atomic bomb was to be detonated, the engineers had concerns that the explosion might ignite the Earth’s atmosphere. It didn’t stop them from detonating the weapon anyway. Also included: while the U.S. government claimed there were only 32 nuclear weapons mishaps during the Cold War, the actual number is over a thousand.

The story is exciting because the U.S. nearly faced a nuclear catastrophe and seemingly no one knew about it — the government told everyone that the missile wasn’t armed with nuclear weapons, and no one pressed further. It certainly isn’t something people talk about today. As the film takes us through the events of September 18, 1980, we feel anticipation and fear right along with the crew. Had the warhead exploded, it would’ve caused an explosion 600 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

The filmmakers recreate key events from the night, allowing us to watch in slow motion as the socket tumbles down 70 feet, puncturing the missile and causing the silo to fill with rocket fuel. We can empathize with Airmen David F. Powell and Jeffrey L. Plumb (the mechanics) as they look on in horror. With the fuel filling the silo chamber, there was a huge risk that the missile would explode.

The bomb did explode that night, but luckily — and some of the interviewees did attribute this to luck —  the nuclear warhead did not.

According to the film’s press notes, Kenner said that making this documentary “was an opportunity to make a young generation aware of the dangers that our nuclear arsenal presents not only to our enemies, but to ourselves as well.” Indeed, the documentary comes across as a cautionary tale.

The documentary was filmed at the Titan Missile Museum in Green Valley, Arizona which is the only remaining Titan II site.  

If, like me, you grew up watching documentaries on the History Channel, or if you liked Director Robert Kenner’s Food Inc., you’ll enjoy Command and Control.