Command and Control

The Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile was one of the deadliest weapons ever created. It was over a hundred feet tall, but you wouldn’t have seen one standing on a launch pad during its heyday because they were kept in underground silos, poised to launch at the press of a button (or the turn of a couple of keys, or however that worked). It could reach the edge of space in five minutes, and the heart of Soviet Russia in twenty, carrying a nuclear warhead more powerful than the combined force of all of the bombs dropped during all of World War II, including the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The Titan II rocket was created in the early 1960s but really should have been retired by the late 1970s. Some claim that the main reason they were still kept at the ready in 1980 is that they were to be used as bargaining chips in the de-escalation talks—we’ll get rid of ours if you get rid of yours. But nonetheless, they were still around and still operational, so they required regular maintenance. And that’s how a small team of engineers found themselves in a Damascus, Arkansas missile silo on September 18, 1980. While working on a platform near the top of the rocket, someone accidentally dropped a wrench socket, which struck a panel near the bottom of the rocket and ruptured a fuel tank. The gaseous fuel started spewing out, filling the silo. Any spark could create a massive explosion, which could, in turn, detonate the warhead and take out a sizeable chunk of Arkansas. Including a nearby Democratic convention attended by Vice President Walter Mondale and Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton.

Command and Control is a harrowing documentary (based on Eric Schlosser’s book of the same title) that takes a close look at this real-life, but little-known, disaster. It’s got archival footage from the incident mixed with training videos, footage captured of the last remaining Titan II rocket (which has been decommissioned and turned into a tourist attraction), and dramatic re-enactments of the event. It also features extensive interviews with many of the people involved. It’s highly informative, providing a lot of information without feeling too complicated or overwhelming. And it maintains a good amount of intensity, even though you presumably have a pretty good idea how it’s going to turn out. There is a bit of a political bent to it, and you’ll be relieved to know that bureaucracy can still function in times of crisis, but it mostly sticks to the facts and allows you to draw your own conclusions.