Courtesy of American Experience Films PBS
September 15, 2016 at 07:00 PM EDT

Command and Control

Current Status
In Season
92 minutes
release date
Robert Kenner
We gave it a B

As far as horror movie objects go, the turkey baster in Don’t Breathe or the goat in The Witch have nothing on the socket wrench or the switchgear in Robert Kenner’s nerve-melting Command and Control. Based on the non-fiction book by Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser, this documentary offers an inventory of America’s near miss accidents involving nuclear warheads—of which, frighteningly, there have been dozens. And the 1961 crash of a four-megaton hydrogen bomb in North Carolina (hallelujah for that “off” switch) is merely an appetizer to the movie’s main focus, the 1980 FUBAR incident in Arkansas, in which a socket pierced a hole in the fuel tank of one of the world’s most potent nukes.

The film, made in tandem with PBS’s American Experience, employs dramatic reenactments and talking heads to chronicle the wild turmoil that transpired during the next several hours at the Little Rock Air Force Base that night. Obviously, things ended well, since Arkansas is still a state on the map as opposed to a crater. The pace of the drama is riveting, as it jumps back through the decades to place the accident in the context of the nuclear arms race.

Kenner and Schlosser generally favor academic analysis over doomsday alarm bells—and that’s on some level admirable. But the subject matter is so grotesque and deranged that the film suffers somewhat from its milquetoast PBS-ness. A voice of apocalyptic reason comes via an grizzled, too-old-for-this-crap weapons developer named Bob Peurifoy, who worked at America’s most important nuclear weapons base, and ends the film with an armageddon warning. “It will happen,” he says of the likelihood of annihilation-caliber accident. His grimness and cynicism acts as the film’s great call to arms. And disarm. B 

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