Movie Review: Command And Control (2016)

cmd-ctl-movieThis is a golden age for documentaries, and, in its own way, ‘Command And Control’ may just be as powerful as 2012’s BAFTA-winning ‘The Act Of Killing’.

As nail-biting as any Hollywood thriller and carrying a terrifying message, it’s also a remarkably timely film given this week’s Theresa May Trident controversy.

Based on the book by acclaimed journalist and author Eric Schlosser (‘Fast Food Nation’, ‘Reefer Madness’), Robert Kenner’s documentary looks in detail at the notorious accident of September 1980 at the Damascus underground nuclear base in Arkansas, when the fuel tank of an idle Titan II missile was damaged – with disastrous consequences.

Meticulously researched and beautifully paced, the film expands into a shocking and riveting exposé of the US nuclear industry. Testimonies of the accident survivors are heartfelt, often surprising and occasionally moving, describing a world where human error can be catastrophic and is usually the result of an unreliable – and sometimes unjust – system.

Any event which leads to loss of life can hardly be classed as a ‘near miss’, but Damascus could easily have been a lot worse – we learn that Vice President Walter Mondale and Governor of Arkansas Bill Clinton were just 46 miles down the road at a Democratic convention in Little Rock when the accident happened.

They would have been pulverized if the warhead had exploded, along with thousands – if not millions – of other citizens.

The scary facts pile up: during the Cold War, it was believed that the US needed between 50 and 100 nuclear weapons to keep up with the Soviet Union – there are currently around 7,000 nuclear weapons on US soil and surrounding oceans, including approximately 500 primed and ready to go.

And some experts estimate that 1,000 similar accidents to the one at Damascus have occurred in the US since the advent of nuclear weaponry.

According to Schlosser, the fact that there hasn’t been more loss of life is down to the excellence of the weapons designers and bravery of the (mostly very young) site engineers.

But mostly it’s down to luck. And the thing about luck is that it eventually runs out, as ‘Command And Control’ so harrowingly depicts.

UB40: Promises & Lies

Scene of the band's first Birmingham gig

Scene of the band’s first Birmingham gig

Sometimes a decent music documentary can really open up a subject like a good book or movie.

The Dexys/Kevin Rowland film ‘Nowhere Is Home’ did the job recently, and last weekend’s ‘Promises & Lies’ does it superbly too.

It lets the protagonists speak for themselves purely in interview format without any ‘I’m-going-on-a-journey’, narrator-led BBC guff.

Like Simply Red, Madness or The Beautiful South, UB40 are so much part of the ’80s UK chart furniture (39 Top 40 singles including three number ones to date – surely only Shakin’ Stevens and Madness bettered them during the decade?) that it’s quite hard to listen to their music objectively these days.

By the mid-1980s, they had essentially become a stadium reggae band, exemplified by their joyous Nelson Mandela 70th birthday duet with early mentor Chrissie Hynde (she headhunted them at a London Rock Garden gig in 1980 for a big US tour).

UB40’s huge success has possibly obscured their great passion for the music – singer/guitarist Ali Campbell claims several times in the film that they were always promoting reggae rather than seeking fame, and the claim rings true.

But their amazing hit-rate was somewhat of a smokescreen for some serious inter-band issues, culminating in a disastrous schism between vocalist/guitarist brothers Ali and Robin in 2008 that makes the Gallagher boys’ break-up look like a petty family tiff.

It was arguably always on the cards. A very tight-knit bunch of Brummies in their early days, UB40 had always split all their performance and songwriting royalties eight ways, a decision which created financial ‘situations’ (millions missing) that would have given even Billy Joel and Leonard Cohen serious cause for concern.

The resentments, claims and counterclaims piled up, and now in 2016 there are two bands gigging as UB40, one almost unbelievably fronted by another Campbell brother, Duncan.

James 'Jimmy' Brown

James ‘Jimmy’ Brown

‘Promises & Lies’ gleans strikingly honest interviews from everyone involved – no punches are pulled. And despite lots of fascinatingly-grim stuff, the documentary shows all band members to be an incredibly resilient, exceptionally talented, somewhat stubborn bunch.

Drummer James ‘Jimmy’ Brown gets an especially bad ride in the film, apparently the chief social-media ‘Ali-hater’, but his playing sounds great throughout (no less an ’80s pop personage than The Police’s Stewart Copeland once named him as his favourite rock drummer), as do almost all of UB40’s classic ’80s anthems.

I’ll be looking more closely into a band I’d mainly ‘dismissed’ as a singles act. Catch ‘Promises & Lies’ while you can on the BBC iPlayer.