Tag Archives: Tribeca 2016

Command and Control: The Titan II

“Command and Control” Review: Kenner / Schlosser Will Blow Your Mind

Command and Control Review: Earth-Shaking Revelations Abound

by HelenHighly

Synopsis:
Command and Control movie poster
Command and Control movie poster

Command and Control, which premiered at the Tribeca 2016 Film Festival, is a high-stakes documentary thriller, from Robert Kenner, director of the Emmy-award-winning film Food, Inc, which was based on Eric Schlosser’s best-selling book, Fast Food Nation.  The docu-drama duo has teamed up again to bring us Command and Control, based on Schlosser’s critically-acclaimed book of the same name. (The book was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for History.) In this film, Schlosser and Kenner explore the deadly “human error” that led to a catastrophic accident at the Titan II missile complex in Damascus, Arkansas in 1980, the stunning details of which have only recently been revealed.

Titan II Explosion Site
Titan II Explosion Site

The chilling new documentary details the unlikely chain of events that caused the accident and the feverish efforts to prevent the explosion of a ballistic missile carrying the most powerful nuclear warhead ever built by the United States. Command and Control exposes the terrifying truth about the management of America’s nuclear arsenal, demonstrates what can happen when the weapons built to protect us threaten to destroy us, and probes how mutually assured destruction might actually mean self-annihilation.

Titan II Warhead
Titan II Warhead

One might wonder if, in today’s post-Cold-War era of disarmament and new, advanced-technology drone warfare, this story is still relevant. If it feels like old news, consider: The United States has about 4,700 nuclear weapons in its current arsenal – enough to completely obliterate this country more than 20 times over. And once a nuclear weapon is fully assembled, its safety is never absolute.

Harold Brown was Secretary of Defense when the Damascus accident occurred, and he only recently revealed to Command and Control filmmakers, “Accidents were not unusual in the defense department. There must have been several every day.”  As stated in this documentary: “Nuclear weapons are machines, and every machine ever invented eventually goes wrong.”

The filmmaker warns, “Every one of them is an accident waiting to happen, a potential act of mass murder. They are out there waiting, soulless and mechanical, sustained by our denial – and they work.”

More Than a Synopsis:

It’s a spy-movie thriller that pivots on a horror-movie trick.

There is a special category of films at Tribeca 2016 that I called “You Think You Know But You Don’t.” Command and Control is a perfect example of this category. Even when you already know how it ends, and even though you just now read the synopsis, and even if you have some experience with this topic, this film still warrants your participation as audience – to sit for 92 minutes and watch and listen to how this story unfolds as told by these two immensely talented men, Screenwriter/Director Robert Kenner and Screenwriter Eric Schlosser.

Titan Missile Pit Crew
Titan Missile Pit Crew

You have to hear the tremble in the voice of the guy (not a portrayal – the actual man) who is still alive but was only 21 years old when the socket dropped from his wrench as he did routine maintenance on the Titan II missile and almost blew up our country – his country.  On top of that missile sat a warhead three times more powerful than all the bombs dropped in World War II, including both atomic bombs. You have to hear David Powell himself explain how he was just a kid – a proud hillbilly from rural Kentucky, who’s first thought as he reached for the falling socket but couldn’t catch it, was that he “didn’t want to get in trouble” and have to tell his mother.

The Socket That Fell From the Wrench
The Socket That Fell From the Wrench

You have to see his work partner, who was only 18 years old at the time, explain how he “had no fear” and was excited “to play with the missile fuel” in the most powerful weapon that had ever existed – “a monster ready to go off,” and that his training included “preparation to destroy an entire civilization – without hesitation,” and he was “willing to do it” (determent only works if you’re actually willing to drop the bomb), but he had never considered that our own warhead might detonate on our own continent.

Titan Missile Explosion
Titan Missile Explosion

You have to hear the aching tone in the voice of this man who tells how he “was ready to take on the world” when he joined the PTS team, but on that fateful day, he stood helpless next to his co-worker as they watched that socket fall 70 feet down the length of the missile and bounce off the platform and puncture a hole in the fuel tank skin, and how they didn’t fully report what had happened – what was happening (highly explosive rocket-fuel pouring out of the missile), because they didn’t want their commander “to freak out.” When they finally admitted the truth, more than 30 minutes later, the situation was out of control. (By comparison: Once launched, the missile could reach a target over half a world away in less than 30 minutes.)

You have to endure the excruciating, minute-by-minute details of what happened next and then next and then unfathomably next, until a few hours later the missile completely exploded, destroying its underground silo and blowing the nine-megaton warhead … to literally God-only-knew where. (Note: one megaton = one million tons of TNT.)  “We escaped the cold war without a nuclear holocaust by some combination of skill, luck, and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion,” said General George Lee Butler of the U.S. Strategic Air Command.

This film will pound your heart and rattle your brain; it will pound your brain and rattle your heart.

  • The image that haunts you: The green-grey glow that surrounds the majestic missile – 10 feet in diameter and more than 100 feet tall, like a giant gleaming bullet, loaded into a concrete gun barrel, cocked, ready to go, and pointed at the sky.
  • The sound of manual typewriter keys, as data is spelled out on the screen – the metallic clickity-clack of what we now recognize as an antiquated and imperfect machine but was a “high-tech” business tool at the time.
  • The word that, when spoken, will make you never hear it quite the same again: “When you’re working on a weapon of mass destruction, you’re counting on everything to work perfect all the time, and things just don’t work perfect all the time.” – First Lieutenant Allan Childers, who was there that day.
  • The context given to simple facts that make you appreciate how complicated those facts really are: It would take fewer than 200 nuclear missiles to annihilate the entire Soviet Union. In the mid-60’s we had 32,000. (We have thousands still hidden around the U.S. Do you wonder where they are? And who is doing “routine maintenance” on them now?*)
Launch Control Panel
Launch Control Panel

You have to be present to comprehend all the little revelations that cannot be captured in a synopsis but that slowly expose themselves and stack precariously, one on top of the other. These are the moments that you will take to bed with you and that you will tell your friend the next day. One revelation that strikes in this film (as well as in another important documentary at Tribeca 2016, National Bird, which is about the U.S. drone program) is that America routinely puts its most powerful weapons and its most dangerous decisions in the hands of virtual children who are patently ill-equipped for the responsibility.

Command and Control is a must-watch film because you must experience the juxtaposition of vigilant precision-on-a-minuscule-scale against the gargantuan-danger and gross-miscalculation that created this event. You have to see the way these men actually light a match and burn the little slip of paper on which is written the daily code that opens the 740-ton door into the missile silo – the spy-movie level of secrecy to safeguard against enemy intrusion, and then come to realize that despite all these preventative measures, it is a horror-movie trick that gets them in the end: Don’t lock the door! The Killer is Inside the House! The danger is not our enemy; the danger is us.

Titan II MIssile Silo
Titan II MIssile Silo

These are the things that make Command and Control a captivating movie and are the reason you should watch it. And despite all the “spoilers” I have written, they barely make a dent in the mass of shock and awe contained in this film. This is truly a movie – not just a news story for the history channel. Although, PBS American Experience already owns it, so… that’s good and bad. But it’s mostly good because that means more people will see it, and this is something you definitely should see. Nonetheless, my point is that this film could sustain – visually, intellectually, emotionally, it could sustain the size and expectations that come with a large screen in a movie theater. Despite being an astounding documentary, this film is also a dramatic thriller.


One of the interviews included in this movie answers this question about the country’s current nuclear arsenal, ominously: Harold Brown, previous Secretary of Defense reports, “the degree of oversight and attention has, if anything, gotten worse.” Separately, on November 14, 2014, the negligence was acknowledged when Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel spoke at a Pentagon news conference: “We just have kind of taken our eye off the ball here,” Hagel said.

Can’t Stop Thinking About It: There’s a saying that just one nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day. In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, environmental and atmospheric scientists Alan Robock and Owen Brian Toon explain why the detonation of even a “limited number” of nuclear weapons could have repercussions for millions of people around the world far away from a nuclear conflict. You can read it by clicking here.


Watching the Command and Control documentary ignited a private memory of my own — something that connected me personally to that tragic story, and after going home and doing a little Googling, a series of nuclear bombs exploded in my childhood. So, I’ve researched and written my own spin-off essay (or, Command and Control Commentary — Part 2) that could almost be its own documentary. Here’s the intro:

Helen’s Own Highly Explosive Nuclear Crisis

I was “a space-age baby.” That’s what my mother wrote in my baby album. I grew up being told the story of when we were in the hospital after she gave birth to me: There was this amazing few minutes when all the infants were left alone, even if they were crying, and all the nurses and mothers (along with millions of other Americans) turned to the TV to watch The First American be Launched into Space. It was a spectacular, patriotic event, and my father helped to make it possible. Click here to read more. 


Where to see the film in theaters: Here’s a list of screenings, coming to your city soon.

Watch the Command and Control movie trailer:

 

 

"My Blind Brother," an unusual romantic comedy

Sophie Goodhart’s “My Blind Brother” Review: A Shrewd Romantic Comedy

Helen Highly Recommends Sophie Goodhart’s My Blind Brother as One of the Best of Tribeca 2016

Nick Kroll and Jenny Slate in "My Blind Brother
Nick Kroll and Jenny Slate in My Blind Brother

Droll My Blind Brother Premiered at SXSW and Cracks Up Tribeca 2016

“I’m a superficial narcissist”
“I’m lazy and judgmental.”

This is how the two romantic leads in My Blind Brother introduce themselves to each other, and I fell in love with them both immediately.

HelenHighly also wants to watch TV all day.
HelenHighly also wants to lay in bed and watch TV all day.

Then, when they both reveal that they perversely wish they could be invalids so they’d have an excuse to lay in bed all day and watch TV, I fell in love with screenwriter Sophie Goodhart. Add in a blind guy, jaded and bored with his own infirmity, who is smoking weed unabashedly in public, even with the police nearby, who says, “I could shoot up in front of cops and they wouldn’t do anything,” and I love this movie in full. It manages to be morbidly dark, joyfully funny and unsentimentally touching all at the same time. 

The storyline itself is genuinely fresh; unlike so many other films at this festival, I can’t think of another previous movie to compare it to. Robbie (Adam Scott) is a champion blind athlete and local philanthropic hero doted on by the community (and his parents) and seemingly incapable of wrongdoing. His apparently well-earned egotism is fed by his frequent, televised crusades to rise above his “disability” while also raising money for charity, where after each successful feat, he is surrounded by gushing reporters who never seem to notice that he tells the same, lame joke every time: “You look beautiful today,” Robbie the blind guy tells every female member of the press.

Robbie’s hapless, unassuming brother Bill (Nick Kroll) knows the real Robbie to be arrogant, selfish and rude, but he still guide-dog-faithfully runs every marathon by Robbie’s side and never makes a peep when he doesn’t receive any accolades, or when even his own parents continually criticize him. One night, Bill escapes the relentless Robbie-worship by hitting up the local bar, where despite his best efforts to present himself as unworthy and unappealing, he gets lucky with an attractive and like-hearted woman named Rose (Jenny Slate). Bill is guilt-ridden because Robbie’s blindness was the result of a childhood accident in which he was involved. Rose is guilt-ridden because immediately after she told her fiancé she wanted to break up with him, he distractedly crossed the street and was hit and killed by a bus.

After one pitiful, anti-romantic (yet soul-soaring) night together, Rose flees without leaving her phone number. Nonetheless, Bill thinks his karma might finally be coming around and that he’s found his sad-sack love-match. But his fantasy is soon squashed when his brother introduces him to his own new paramour – the very same Rose, who (without knowing he is Bill’s brother) has started dating blind Robbie in an attempt to make herself a better person. Now Bill must decide if he will put himself second again or finally stand up to his blind brother.

"My Blind Brother" gives a new twist to the Love Triangle
My Blind Brother gives a new twist to the Love Triangle

Kudos to writer/director Sophie Goodhart for opting against a “when bad things happen to good people” script and instead going with “when good things happen to bad people.” Goodhart’s two, guilty, self-loathing characters are amazingly charming and lovable. Robbie makes a wonderfully heroic antagonist, whose capability and determination we slowly come to dislike more and more as the story unfolds. (The fact that actor Adam Scott looks quite a bit like a smugly smiling Tom Cruise doesn’t hurt.) And Goodhart’s ingenious twist on the conventional love-triangle takes the sentimental weight out of the usual wet blanket that hangs over traditional romantic comedies. This movie is bright and buoyant and makes us laugh at ourselves more than at mere jokes.

Goodhart’s head-on attacks of our socially-correct attitudes toward both the physically handicapped and noble self-sacrifice are deftly executed dark humor that captures what’s funny about resentment, bitterness, and condescension. Her sharp jabs at “those less fortunate” never feel like bullying and never fall into rude buffoonery. Even as the movie escalates into full-blown wackiness, it still maintains its shrewd edge.

Another strength to this film are the secondary characters. Rose’s prissy, eye-rolling, sarcastically unsympathetic roommate (Zoe Kazan) ends up with the stoner blind guy. Ha! It’s just another delightful quirk in this defiant film where apathy and under-achievement are treated as virtues and perfection is the problem to be overcome. Finally: a romantic comedy with mutually flawed lovers, where no sacrifice or self-improvement is necessary for them to win happiness and each other.

HelenHighly Votes Yes
HelenHighly Votes Yes

Just to be fair, I will say that there are a few small spots where the script veers into impossible interactions – stupid things that could or would never actually be said. These mini-moments wouldn’t stand out so much if all the other moments in the script were not so true and all the other lines were not so witty. I am not usually a great lover of comedies, and the fact that I am calling this film One of the Best of Tribeca 2016 means it is truly something special. Unfortunately, my opinion doesn’t count for much, and this film may not get a broad theatrical release, so keep an eye out at your local art theater and on television.


News Update: Starz is nearing a deal to pick up Sophie Goodhart’s SXSW premiere My Blind BrotherVariety reports. The outlet shares that the acquisition “will likely be the biggest sale out of this year’s South by Southwest” and is estimated to be in the low seven-figure range. The comedy was reportedly the subject of a bidding war among distributors like Netflix, The Orchard, Sony and Gravitas Ventures.