When a nuclear bomb is in danger of accidental detonation, established procedures are carefully followed, and cooperation takes precedence over assigning blame. Or so the hopeful viewer might think before seeing Command and Control, a PBS American Experience documentary now in limited theatrical release before its broadcast debut.
The movie, developed by director Robert Kenner from Eric Schlosser's book of the same name, reveals how a warhead atop a Titan II missile risked explosion in 1980 at a Strategic Air Command (SAC) silo near Damascus, Arkansas. Workers — one of whom was killed — scrambled to prevent disaster. But the force that prevented a wider catastrophe was sheer luck.
This is not an unknown story; the fatal accident was reported at the time, though with fewer details than this film marshals. It's also not the worst Titan II calamity, at least in terms of human loss. In 1965, 53 construction workers died when hydraulic fluid ignited at another Arkansas silo.
What gives Command and Control its urgency are both its wealth of information and the implications of its story. The Titan IIs are gone — even in 1980 they were generally considered obsolete — but the U.S. nuclear-weapons program continues. Estimates of the number of near-misses (the military calls them "broken arrows") range from 32 to more than 1,000, the movie reports.