Attention must be paid: our nuclear arsenal may present a clear and present danger. In a new documentary Command and Control, filmmakers Robert Kenner and Eric Schlosser make a compelling case about a potential disaster that few are talking about, illustrated by the story of the Titan II near miss in 1980 in Damascus, Arkansas. But rather than incite fear, their documentary based on Eric Schlosser's book, entertains like a thriller. I had a chance to talk to them about bombs, filmmaking, and activism last week, before their Film Forum opening.
Q: The dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki and Hiroshima opened a Pandora's Box on nuclear weapons. Your film picks up that post-war legacy. Why should we pay attention to the bomb now? How bad a nightmare is this?
Eric Schlosser: Technology embodies the ethos of the era that created it. That goes for President Truman's decision to use the atom bomb, which seems so remarkable, but that decision was just a continuation of what was routinely done in WWII. We destroyed 90 other Japanese cities, fire bombing them. That was how war was being fought in WWII. Look at Dresden, London: civilian casualties were routine. The use of nuclear weapons was not a change in policy, but a radical and profound change in efficiency. One plane. One bomb. One city. When you look at nuclear weapons, you are looking at a policy of deliberately slaughtering innocent civilians. After we left Nagasaki, revulsion toward nuclear weapons set in. If you look back at the end of WWII, there was a missed opportunity in which the US wanted to abolish nuclear weapons. The UN, at its creation, wanted to abolish nuclear weapons, in the worldwide consensus that man was not equipped to control this technology. When you think about the weapons on submarines right now in 2016, they are a remnant of 1942 ideas of how to wage war.
Q: The theme of Command and Control is: mistakes can be made. What should we do now?
Robert Kenner: You could say that Nagasaki and Hiroshima were really the beginning of the Cold War. We used to duck under desks when I was a kid. That was the level of fear. But that was not a solution. In the 1980's, nuclear weapons were decreased by a significant amount. The public had a large influence. One thing that drew me to Eric's book was the fact that there is such an amnesia that exists today. We stopped wanting to think about something so terrible. I thought it would be great to do a film, but not do it as an issue film, but a nonfiction thriller that would appeal to people who are not thinking about this threat. Our film is about creating awareness: we might make mistakes; human mistakes occur all the time with low level consequences, but the accident that occurred in Damascus that we show, when a worker accidentally dropped a socket puncturing the missile's fuel tank, had the potential for incredibly high consequences. We don't have the emotional capacity to control something that could end the planet.
Q: Prioritize this terrifying truth among the fears we face right now.
Schlosser: This is the greatest threat we face that we are not talking about. Global warming is an existential threat but maybe over time the worst impacts can be ameliorated. The devastation of a single nuclear weapon will be instantaneous, irreversible, and will change the course of history. 9/11 was horrible: 15 years later we have had two wars that cost us trillions of dollars, restrictions on our civil liberties, the rise of a surveillance state. If a city anywhere in the world is destroyed by a nuclear weapon, the impact on the world will dwarf the impact of 9/11. This is something to avoid. We are not powerless. We got out of the Cold War without any of them being used. What we have now is worse. We have the weapons and lack awareness. Among people under the age of 35 there is no awareness of this issue. It is not that this will go away, but people can put pressure on politicians and reduce the danger. We have to make it clear that nuclear weapons are unacceptable. We used to have 32,000 now we have 7,000. Every nuclear weapon that is eliminated from the world is one less opportunity for something horrible to happen.
Kenner: The weapons we have are designed to take out a nation state and many of the enemies we confront now are not nation states. It is more complicated to figure out how to use these weapons, how to wage war in the world we live in now. Drones have become the new form. We don't have to get our fingers dirty. Unlike our film, Food Inc., an issue film, this is a techno-thriller. We are looking to appeal to a younger audience to think about a vital issue. In the recent coup in Turkey, NATO's largest stockpile of nuclear weapons was on the Syrian border. To think, that could have gotten into the wrong hands.
Q: What was the single most challenging aspect of making this movie?
Kenner: Being able to shoot in an actual decommissioned Titan II missile silo. There's one 1980 type Titan II silo in the world identical to the Damascus location, and when that became available for filming, that enabled a documentary filmmaker to make an action techno-thriller on this site.
Q: What do you hope Command and Control will accomplish?
Schlosser: The aim of my book and this film is optimistic, to empower people. First step: Open your eyes. The Cold war ended peacefully because of activism. That is the reason apartheid ended. Most dangerous, more than any weapon, are apathy and lack of awareness.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.