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'Command and Control' documents how close we've come to nuclear annihilation, and it's terrifying

I think it's safe to say that most Americans are grateful we prevailed over the Soviet Union in the Cold War.

I think it's safe to say that most Americans are grateful we prevailed over the Soviet Union in the Cold War.

But as we learn from Robert Kenner's new documentary, Command and Control, we also should thank our lucky stars we survived without suffering any serious nuclear mishaps.

A terrifying documentary that'll have your heart racing as fast as any Hollywood thriller, Kenner's film reveals that, due to a range of errors and accidents, we were very close, more than once, to detonating a nuke on our own soil.

According to the film, the number of "broken arrows," as the military calls near-misses, ranges anywhere from 32 to 1,000, depending on who is counting.

While Command and Control includes an overview of near-misses, the film, produced by PBS as part of its American Experience series and based on the book by journo Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation, Reefer Madness) makes its point through a detailed analysis of a single incident from 1980 at a Strategic Air Command (SAC) silo near Damascus, Ark.

The incident sounds terrifying: A member of the Propellant Transfer Team working on a Titan II missile dropped an eight-pound socket from a socket wrench, which somehow ripped a hole in the missile's fuel tank.

An explosion of the fuel tank alone would have been a grave incident, costing casualties and millions of dollars in damage. But the Titan II was outfitted with a nuclear warhead, which apparently could have been triggered by an explosion.

The incident was resolved with a single casualty - one of the workers was killed when he scrambled to fix the damage - but an earlier Titan II mishap in 1965 led to the deaths of 53 construction workers.

We learn that by 1980, the Titan II already was hopelessly obsolete, but it was kept as part of our arsenal as a kind of lame duck: It could be scrapped the next time a nuclear peace treaty called for the arsenal to be reduced by a specified number of warheads and missiles.

Command and Control meticulously breaks down the incident with a rich, detailed, minute-by-minute account.

We learn that at the time of the accident, a gaggle of prominent politicians, including then-Vice President Walter Mondale and future President Bill Clinton were gathered just 46 miles away at a Democratic Party Convention in Little Rock. Nuclear detonation would have vaporized them all.

Despite a sometimes uneven pace - Kenner's film spends a little too much time covering the earlier history of the bomb - it's a brilliantly researched film that skillfully uses archival footage, information from newly declassified documents, and new interviews to provide a portrait of the Cold War climate, the nuclear industry, and several other broken-arrow incidents.

It's the stuff of nightmares.




Command and Control

3 1/2 (Out of four stars)

Directed by Robert Kenner. Distributed by American Experience/PBS.

Running time: 1 hour, 32 mins.

Parent's guide: Not rated (disturbing themes and images, footage of nuclear detonations).

Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse.