Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Mon Sep 12, 2016 8:08 pm 
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Broken arrows

This well-made and vivid new documentary is a shocking reminder of the insanity of keeping a huge stock of nuclear bombs, as the US does. It focuses in particular on one nuclear-related accident - they're called "broken arrows" - the September 18-19, 1980 missile explosion at Damascus, Arkansas. The film presents the whole sequence of events and its aftermath with a skillful blend of emotional passion and meticulous hour-by-hour and person-by-person detail.

At one point we thought we needed only 50 to 200 nuclear weapons to completely annihilate the Soviet Union, yet by the mid-Sixties we had 32,000 of them. And now there are still a lot of them around, a continual menace to us, as well as the rest of the world. In the Seventies and Eighties the government kept many bombs in already outmoded accessories like the Titan II intercontinental ballistic missiles in their underground silos, merely to use them, according to Defense Minister at the time Harold Brown, as bargaining chips in the Seventies between Carter and Brezhnev. The overabundance of bombs and dangerous outmoded weaponry is a constant danger that's ignored. People aren't even scared of nuclear war the way they once were, so they don't think about it, and the presence and locations of bombs is kept hush-hush.

In the Dakota accident, Dave Powell, one of the dedicated young members of the Propellant Transfer Team (PTS), responsible for Propellant Transfer Team (PTS) that used a variety of checklists and security protocols to keep the missile oxidizer and fuel tanks in perfect balance to avoid a detonation, made an error. Things had been going wrong throughout the system. The team members were tired from working overlong hours. Forgetting to bring a ratchet, Dave used a torque wrench (as formerly had been the protocol) to make an oxygen tank adjustment, and the wrench slipped and a socket fell down the side of the huge silo emplacement. The socket hit the rocket and tore a small hole in it. Fuel began to spew out. Eventually there was an explosion and a nuclear bomb was thrown out. Luckily, the bomb didn't detonate. It might have. And we learn it was three times the power of every bomb dropped in World War II combined. (This film is several times more powerful than you expect it to me, as well.)

The incident led to hours of gathering manpower and dithering about what to do. In the end the missile, but not the bomb, exploded. It's a miracle that the PTS men lived, all but one. Many who knew what was going on thought there would be widespread devastation and death.

Schlosser's full title is Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident and the Illusion of Safety. The documentary is the usual talking heads, archival footage, and skillful dramatic recreations, but they work well here to bring the terrible incident at Damascus in 1980 intensely to life. We feel the horror of what happened then, when a large area could have been destroyed and thousands or millions killed, and we hear about the heavy burden of memory that men involved then still carry today. In addition the film provides many other points of view - a farmer, a radio host, a political convention just 46 miles away in Little Rock attended by vice president Walter Mondale, Arkansas governor Bill Clinton and democratic senator David Pryor.

The shocker (but is it really?) is how the government agency in charge, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) systematically followed a policy of complete deniability, always blaming accidents on individual "human error" and never the system, scapegoating the little guys. The film points out the system is very faulty indeed if a dropped metal part could lead to blowing a nuclear bomb out of its underground emplacement. The brave young team members who bore the main responsibility of dealing with an emergency at the missile base, the PTS men, several of whom were seriously injured and one of whom died, were "treated like crap," they report. They ought to have been made heroes. Instead they were punished and chased out of the service. The outmoded Titan II missiles were finally phased out in 1987.

The film fills us in on the larger picture. The Department of Defense in 2013 acknowledged that there had been 32 nuclear weapons accidents. In fact, there may have been over a thousand. That no hydrogen bomb has been detonated is a matter of careful regulation, but also sheer luck. The former director of Sandia National Laboratories, which produced the bombs, declares that sooner or later a nuclear bomb will go off by accident. When Damascus happened, nobody was told there was a nuclear bomb there. Even high government officials were not told. Such secrecy is one reason there's little public awareness of the dangers.

The film is made vivid by testimony of living survivors of the Damascus accident at every level, and their younger selves are often shown in photographs. There is plenty of remarkable dramatic restaging footage of the site of the missile and the men working there at the time.

The investigative journalist Eric Schlosser and filmmaker Robert Kenner worked together before on the documentary about the corporatization of what we eat in the 2009 Food, Inc., which Schlosser co-produced, and which partly grew out of his book Fast Food Nation, though that book had been made into the eponymous 2006 film of Richard Linklater. Schlosser not only cowrote, but appears in the movie version of Command and Control- a brilliant, technically complex as well as disturbing work that in ambition and accomplishment goes beyond the earlier one at every level.

Command and Control, 92 mins., debuted at Tribeca's "Spotlight," and was shown at Sheffield and AFI. It was made by Robert Kenner for the WGBH (Boston PBS TV) "American Experience" series from Eric Schlosser's book, which was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for History. Schlosser wrote Fast Food Nation (2001), Reefer Madness (2003), and Command and Control (2013), and has worked on a book about the US penal system for ten years. The film opens theatrically 14 Sept. 2016 in NYC (Film Forum) and will expand to other cities before its broadcast premiere. There is a book, Eric Schlosser, Coomand and Control. Those interested should also see the book Broken Arrow - The Declassified History of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Accidents (2008) by James C. Oskins and Michael H. Maggelet (Oskins was interviewed 15 Aug. 2017 on his weekly radio show, "Exploration," by Michio Kaku). Oskins and Maggelet promise a sequel.

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┬ęChris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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