Just in time for Halloween, a really scary movie premiered Friday at the Edina Cinema.

Only “Command and Control” isn’t a horror flick, but a documentary about a near nuclear-weapon explosion in Damascus, Ark., in 1980.

The film uses footage, re-creations, and surprisingly moving interviews from former airmen to tell the story of how a dropped socket during routine maintenance almost led to a nuclear warhead detonation that would have decimated much of Arkansas and spread radioactive fallout all the way to the East Coast.

The socket plunged 70 feet, bounced off the silo, and then punctured the fuel container of a Titan II missile carrying America’s most powerful nuclear warhead. What came next is “Command and Control’s” harrowing, heroic tale of the frantic scramble to avert thermonuclear catastrophe.

Just as disturbing as that incident is, it’s not isolated. In fact, the film reveals, there have been more than 1,000 “broken arrow” incidents.

“The core message of this film is that nuclear weapons are machines controlled by fallible human beings, and human beings make mistakes all the time,” said Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation that supports nonproliferation efforts.

Politicians are all too human, too, and some (including Hillary Clinton, in a leaked recording) question whether it’s a mistake to back President Obama’s plan to spend about $1 trillion over 30 years to upgrade America’s nuclear arsenal.

Some defense experts are also increasingly speaking out, including former Defense Secretary William J. Perry, who, in a recent New York Times commentary, urged the U.S. to “safely phaseout its land-based intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force.” Further, James E. Cartwright, a former vice chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff who now chairs the Global Zero Commission on Nuclear Risk Reduction, and Bruce G. Blair, a former Minuteman launch officer who is a founder of Global Zero, argued in a separate Times commentary that the U.S. should adopt a no-first-use policy on nuclear weapons.

Beyond the geostrategic consequences, there’s a moral — and monetary — dimension to the debate.

“It’s not just a question of guns vs. butter, it’s guns vs. guns,” said Cirincione, who said that spending so much on nuclear weapons would mean underfunding defense needs elsewhere.

“The next president,” Cirincione said, “has to prevent nuclear disasters: stopping terrorists from getting a nuclear bomb; stopping any new states from getting these weapons; and preventing accidents from the roughly 15,000 weapons [worldwide] that still exist.”

He added: “There’s a fourth catastrophe we have to avert: nuclear bankruptcy. ... The military will tell you that if you change their mission, you change their requirements.”

The weapons modernization plan has received little attention in the campaign, which has mostly focused on the essential, but narrower, nightmares of North Korean nukes and the multinational pact on Iran’s potential nuclear-weapons program.

“There is very good reason to be concerned about the North Korean nuclear arsenal and good reason to be concerned about the possibility of Iran getting the atomic bomb, but we’re not talking about the 7,000 roughly nuclear weapons the United States already possesses,” said Eric Schlosser, who wrote “Command and Control” and coproduced the movie.

“There is very little attention being paid to how many weapons do we have; why do we have them; how would we use them; how are they being maintained; how safe is the system,” Schlosser said. “It’s the most important issue no one is talking about.”

Indeed, an expanded analysis of all these nuclear-weapons issues should not only be talked about, but be among the top topics at Sunday’s penultimate presidential debate, as well as spark a bipartisan congressional conversation. Especially since beyond being a domestic, North Korean, Iranian and transnational terrorist issue, it’s a renewed Russian one after Vladimir Putin pulled out of a U.S.-Russia nuclear security agreement on Monday.

“Nuclear weapons are the only weapons that are actually an existential threat to the United States,” said Cirincione, who explained that using one current nuclear weapon would create a level of destruction not seen since World War II. Ten, he said, would represent a level of destruction unprecedented in human history. And “the use of 100 could end human history.”

“We have to reduce this threat before something truly terrible happens,” he said.

Existential threats (let alone the prospect of watching another presidential debate) may understandably send some to seek escapism at the movies, perhaps for a more traditional Halloween horror film. And while watching “Command and Control” may seem counterintuitive, it actually delivers shivers in its own right.

Calling his film a “techno-horror thriller,” director Robert Kenner concluded: “In a weird way I was setting out to make an entertainment film that happens to be terrifying, and happens to be about something real, and happens to be about the monster that we don’t want to talk about, which on some levels is us.”

 

John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.