Is it possible to feel peace and unease at the same time? Watching Frederick Wiseman's 1987 documentary "Missile," my reactions kept contradicting each other: relief followed by doubt, pride followed by shame, boredom and then intrigue, and then back again.
Filmed in 1986 - just before the waning days of the Cold War - at Vandenberg Air Force Base, "Missile" follows the daily lives of those responsible for turning the keys in the event of a nuclear war. Most of the footage is that of the intense training required to secure such an important position, although, as with all Wiseman films, the camera repeatedly steps aside for smaller, personal moments as well as the tedious, businesslike staff meetings covering ridiculous minutia.
Which brings me to boredom and intrigue. For every scene of utter fascination - either at the skill and precision required to commit to such a task, or at the technology involved, or at discussions of how weather patterns and atmosphere conditions affect missile trajectory, or, heck, even at the mere sight of otherwise ordinary folks shuffling their way through this job - there's a moment where the monotony takes over. Anyone who's ever had to sit through some lifeless meeting at work, anyone who's ever watched "The Office" and felt that twinge of recognition, will recognize the tired faces on display as someone runs down the matters of the day.
(One short sequence, in which newly minted rules regarding fraternization are discussed, becomes hilarious; the poor sap in charge doesn't want to be there, doesn't believe in the rules, half-asses his way through the conversation, yet still manages to say "fraternization" every five seconds because it's the new big phrase on the memo. Ever had a meeting like that?)
Of course, Wiseman is so clever with his footage selection that the boring scenes never actually bore. We sympathize, and in a way we're thrilled: these people may control a nuclear stockpile, but they also have to go through the same mundane crap that the rest of us do.
Peace and unease. There's a calming effect had by this footage, to know that the officers in charge are not only ordinary folks like you and me, but they're also highly capable. The film walks us through complex conversations and detailed prep drills, culminating in the final exam of two top recruits, who pass with flying colors. Never mind that the Air Force likely approved all the footage (a bit of dialogue overheard later supports what common sense already told us, that the big stuff, the classified stuff, that was hidden from camera) in an effort to soothe nervous viewers and spin their image. That doesn't matter when we're not only cheering for the recruits' success (how joyful a moment when these two women hear they've passed with perfect scores) but sighing in relief that the ones in charge of watching over our deadliest weapons are responsible, competent, intelligent, and trustworthy.
But that same thought also chills. Watch how coldly, how smoothly these officers discuss nuclear war. Listen as they use "when" instead of "if" without pause. Obviously such a task requires a certain detachment - a lengthy opening sequence details a riveting first-day discussion on that very requirement - but how does one possibly get into such a mindset? To see these regular softball-playing, beer-drinking Joes take such great pride in mastering the launch of the deadliest weapons ever known to humanity is unsettling. You want to reach through the screen and shake each officer, asking how they can be so calm.
Granted, maybe they're calm because they know they'll never be called to turn those keys. The movie opens and closes with commentary on deterrence, and there's a certainty in one general's speech when he says he doubts the Soviets will ever attack because they know the U.S. can outgun them. Can one use terms like "when" but keep the "if" or even the "on the very unlikely chance" close enough up front in one's mind?
As with his other films, Wiseman does not enhance the story with music or narration; he simply provides us with the footage, then backs away, allowing us to absorb the information for ourselves. With a film like "Missile," I'd expect a wide range of reactions from the same scenes. Some of us will be horrified. Others will be proud. And then maybe they'll trade. Over twenty years later (and long since the Cold War has faded), Wiseman's film still fascinates, still provokes, still leaves us contradicted.
"Missile" arrives on DVD through Wiseman's Zipporah Films website. The menu is completely no-frills: a black screen with title, studio logo, and the word "play." There are no chapter menus, although each disc is broken up into a handful of (lengthy) chapter stops. As with other Zipporah releases, this is a DVD-R, although this does not appear to affect the quality of the presentation.
Video & Audio
Shot on 16mm film, "Missile" is seen in this 1.33:1 full frame transfer with plenty of visible film grain, mainly in more darkly lit scenes, as is inherent with the format. There is also some intermittent print damage during the second half of the film, in the form of dirt and debris and the occasional dark splotch on a frame or two. It's nothing distracting, and considering the source comes from the filmmaker himself, this is probably the best it's going to look.
The soundtrack is a simple mono that offers all dialogue cleanly. No subtitles are included.
The real downside to these Zipporah releases is the asking price: thirty bucks for a no-frills DVD-R. The movie itself is so remarkable that it's tempting to say it's worth it, and if you're comfortable paying that much, by all means, go for it. But I can't quite recommend what I wouldn't buy myself, and so I'll have to say Rent It, if you can find it.