If you’ve yet to read Eric Schlossel’s 2014 book Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety, allow me to proffer a strong recommendation — but be warned. If you’re at all nervous about the possibilities of a nuclear apocalypse, it won’t put your mind at rest or help you sleep at night.
Nor will its big screen adaptation. Command and Control (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Oct. 14) underscores the book’s conclusions and suggests that, despite receding into the deep distance of our collective cultural and social memory, the danger posed by The Bomb remains clear and present.
Schlossel framed his broad history of catastrophic close calls around a single incident, the near detonation of a nine-megaton warhead at a Damascus, Arkansas missile base in September, 1980. That incident is the singular focus of this new documentary, co-produced by Schlossel and directed by Robert Kenner, previously responsible for the noteworthy climate change denial doc Merchants of Doubt.
Kenner makes excellent use of contemporaneous television and stock footage to recreate the incident, triggered when a maintenance man dropped a loose socket into a missile bay. The falling socket punctured the body of a Titan II ICBM and started a fuel leak, setting in train a sequence of events that could have resulted in massive local destruction and the spread of radioactive fallout across the eastern seaboard.
More by happenstance than skill a detonation was averted, but the lesson of Schlossel’s film and book is that such incidents are the rule, not the exception. Indeed, since the dawning of the Nuclear Age, there have been over a thousand mishaps involving nuclear weapons. At some point, our luck is likely to run out.
If you’re looking for something a little less grimly realistic this weekend, consider Girl Asleep (opening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday, Oct. 14). Directed by newcomer Rosemary Myers, it’s a coming-of-age saga about 14-year old schoolgirl Greta’s (freckle-faced Bethany Whitmore) misadventures at a new school, where (unsurprisingly) she doesn’t fit in with the usual teenage cliques and only a red-headed fellow outcast named Elliott (Harrison Feldman, equal parts Napoleon Dynamite and Revenge of the Nerd’s Poindexter) will befriend her.
Girl Asleep follows Greta as she tries to negotiate her way through an awkward patch, rejecting the local ‘mean girls’ while also pushing back against her parents’ efforts to help her fit in. Matthew Whittet’s screenplay initially sets up the film as a routine quirky indie comedy, but transforms into something quite different at the half-way mark thanks to a birthday party invitation dated Feb. 31.
Indeed, the second half of the film radically shifts gears, becoming an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ down-the-rabbit-hole fantasy in which a magical music box ushers Greta into an alternate universe populated by strangely familiar creatures. Though regrettably shot in near darkness, these scenes are the film’s most evocative and successful moments.
While Girl Asleep left this aged scribe somewhat underwhelmed, teenagers not yet exposed to such cinematic wonders as Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves will probably appreciate the film’s arty yet accessible pretensions.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.
Scott Budnick, producer of The Hangover movies, is also the founder of The Anti-Recidivism Coalition. Come hear him speak about his work and more on Saturday Oct. 15 in Berkeley, at Uncharted Ideas Festival, a Berkeleyside production. Tickets here.