Photo by KT Hawbaker-Krohn

Five Questions with Eric Schlosser, Author of ‘Command and Control’

The 21st century’s answer to Upton Sinclair, Eric Schlosser is a muckraking journalist whose books have taken on everything from our Fast Food Nation to the United States’ long bout of Reefer Madness.

Wrought with truths that are often stranger than fiction, Schlosser’s dynamic work easily translates to documentary film. Command and Control, about a near nuclear disaster in Arkansas, is his most recent work made into a film. Schlosser made a pit stop at the Film Center for last Friday’s Chicago premiere, kicking off Command and Control’s one-week run.

KT Hawbaker-Krohn: What made you want to write this book?

Eric Schlosser: I thought the story of the Damascus accident was amazing. And I was amazed that I’d never heard about it before. And as I got deeper into my research, the story of this one nuclear weapon seemed like a good narrative frame for exploring other major themes in my book — such as the the heroism of ordinary servicemen during the Cold War, the difficulty of controlling complex technological systems, and the luck that helped us avoid a nuclear catastrophe. All of those elements were present in Damascus, Arkansas, on the night of the accident in September, 1980.

Image via PBS

KHK: What surprises you the most about the film adaptations of your work?

ES: The fact that I’ve loved all the films based on my work. For writers, that is a very low probability event in the movie business.

KHK: You’ve collaborated with Robert Kenner (the new film’s director) on a variety of projects, including Food Inc. Did Command and Control demand any changes to your creative partnership?

ES: Unfortunately, I had to say “you’re right” to Robby more often than is usual.

KHK: How do you see film fitting into contemporary muckraking?

ES: This is truly the golden age of the documentary. As newspapers, magazines, and television networks increasingly get rid of their investigative reporters, filmmakers have stepped in to perform the role of challenging powerful, vested interests. The Act of Killing, Gasland, Cartel Land, Inside Job — the list of brave and important non-fiction films goes on and on.

KHK: Which movies do you think audiences should watch to prep for Command and Control?

ES: Only one comes to mind: Dr. Strangelove. The most terrifying thing about that film is how close it came to depicting the actual reality of nuclear command and control in 1964. It was almost a documentary. •

For information about tickets and showtimes, visit www.siskelfilmcenter.org/commandandcontrol .