Nuclear Documentaries or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace Our Fate
There's a lot to be stressed out about in the world right now, and the current nuclear dick measuring contest happening between the US and North Korea is certainly not helping. However, to them I say: "bust out the millimetre ruler!" because I sincerely doubt they'll get past the measuring phase. In fact, I'm feeling downright Alfred E Neumann over this current talk of fire and fury, and if we all die in a nuclear holocaust in the next year feel free to sift through my ashen shadow and whisper "I told you so." However, the thing is there's plenty of other stuff we can stress ourselves out about when it comes to nuclear war. Like, y'know, the multiple nuclear threats we have right here at home! So here's a list of documentaries and four horrible things to do with nuclear warfare that we can focus on stressing ourselves out about instead:
What They Tell You: The Atomic Cafe (1982)
The Atomic Cafe by Jayne Loader, Kevin Rafferty, and Pierce Rafferty is my favorite type of documentary in structure. It's stitched together from 1940s and 1950s news reel interviews, government films, advertisements and media about America post World War II, specifically the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Through skillful juxtaposition and editing, and sometimes even letting these clips play out straight, the film calls attention to the hypocrisy, misinformation and sometimes just flat out lies told to the American public. From sources as lowly as advertisements, to as high as from the mouth of the President of the United States himself, The Atomic Cafe showcases the best of American propaganda in full swing. If you ever wanted to know what current day America was built on, it's definitely this shit. The 1950s invented "fake news."
Released during the Reagan era, The Atomic Cafe has obvious parallels to be drawn aplenty; not to mention a dark, punk-rock sense of humor, heightened through its amazing retro soundtrack. As funny as most of these clips are — they truly are amazing, theres no other word for such blatant bullshitting — what's most fascinating is seeing how happily capitalism and fear go hand in hand. My favorite clip in the film was an American Legion propaganda piece about the terrors of communism, which uses a small-town in Wisconsin as a setting for a "it could happen here" performance of what a communist takeover would look like. They show the horrors of what-if, such as the Red army seizing public utilities, jailing the press ("exit freedom of thought!"), and blowing up the statue of liberty (yup). Then the camera turns to the narrator as he moves back the hands of a clock–"the time is not yet, and let us pray it never happens in our country"–and then pauses to let you know he is proud to represent two shopping centers in California because "they are concrete expressions of the practical idealism that built America... [with] plenty free parking for all the cars we capitalists require. Who can help but contrast the beautiful, practical settings of the Arcadia shopping hub of the Whittier Quad with what you find under communism." If that doesn't make you want to salute the flag and sing our national anthem, I don't know what will.
Another stand out was watching the original Duck and Cover cartoon campaigns, which have long since been widely ridiculed for doling out useless advice. However watching them in the setting of The Atomic Cafe you can't help but realize the actual point of them; Duck and Cover wasn't meant to save you from an atomic bomb, just simply to keep you terrified and paranoid at the youngest possible age. Duck and Cover wants you to be ready to die at any moment, whether it's at school, on your bike, or at the grocery store. And what does the lingering threat of death do to you? Why it makes you go out and live life! Buy canned food! Buy that gun! Buy these non-habit forming tranquilizers! Buy that bomb shelter! Buy that new car! How long do you have left anyhow? (You haven't lived until you see that advice come out of the mouth of a priest, another highlight of this documentary let me tell you.) Buy buy buy so we can inch just that much closer to equally profitable war!
What They Don't Tell You: Radio Bikini (1988)
Radio Bikini by Robert Stone is a documentary about the nuclear tests Operation Crossroads at Bikini Atoll in 1946. The documentary is mostly told through the stories of two interviewees, Kilon Bauno the Chief of the Bikinians, and American serviceman John Smitherman. Bauno's and Smitherman's firsthand testimonials narrate over awesome and horrifying military footage of the desolation caused by these tests.
There's plenty disturbing in Radio Bikini — from the displacement of the island natives, the reassurances to soldiers that they were out of danger, actual footage of soliders being exposed to radiation and more — but what disturbed me the most was everything that was left unsaid by the authorities that obviously knew more than they let on. It becomes clear quite quickly in Radio Bikini that the entire test operated on a whole lot of people knowing only a very small and specific amount of the truth. Islanders were told their evacuation was temporary, yet the military knew it wouldn't be – even the natives caught glimpses of their homes burning as they boarded ships to evacuate. Soldiers were told they had nothing to fear by being in and around these test, yet they weren't told what radiation even was. Geiger counters were brought in for testing, but they were never fully explained to the general soldiers whom were measuring – soldiers with too much radiation in their clothing were simply told to take a shower. Even if the military was truly ignorant of the widespread effects of these bombs, hard to believe after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the first round of animal testing during Operation Crossroads surely could have clued them in.
As Smitherman describes the slow and incredibly painful march towards his own death, directly a cause of his exposure to massive amounts of radiation at Bikini, one can't help but get incensed. The military knew. The military knew, and willfully misrepresented their intentions. Clips of Government officials talking about how these tests are harmless and have nothing to do with war, merely scientific military study, are insulting to anybody's intelligence. This was never a scientific experiment as the Manhattan Project scientists actively lobbied against it. This was merely a reckless and horrific act of military greed that sacrificed its own soldiers to die in nightmarish fashions in the name of hubris.
There is a clip of U.S. Delegate Warren Austin speaking to the U.N. in which he says: "Our motives, in war and peace, we leave to the judgement of history." Well, history sees through your double talk, but that unfortunately can't undo the indelible.
The Continuing Terror of Nuclear Fallout: Chernobyl Heart (2003)
Chernobyl Heart by Maryann DeLeo is a documentary that follows Adi Roche, founder of the Chernobyl Children's Project International, as she observes the effects of Chernobyl that still haunt the Ukraine and Belarus Despite the fact that the Chernobyl disaster occurred in 1986, children in these areas are still being born to this day with an alarming rate of genetic disorders due to environmental radiation poisoning and exposure, even in the womb. The title of the film refers to a previously unknown cardiac condition, "Chernobyl heart," that causes children to be born with holes in their hearts. It's typically correctable with surgery, but the rampant poverty and lack of more modern surgical tool sadly dooms thousands of children to die each year.
Chernobyl Heart is more of a record of time than a more classically structured documentary. While the camera follows aid workers and doctors as its structure, the interviews are typically on the fly or in stairwells. This handheld style emphasizes the message that there's simply no time to stop and talk, it's literally a matter of life and death. With the sharp rate of birth defects there has also been a colossal uptick in abandoned babies and children with mental and physical handicaps since Chernobyl. There is some truly shocking footage of very young children with truly horrific and deadly birth defects – a living baby with her brain hanging off the back of her head is one of the more hauntingly depressing images. While these orphanages do seem to be trying their best under the circumstances, the oppressively overcrowded conditions some of these children are forced to live in reminded me more of the nightmarish mental institutions of the Victorian era.
Beyond the depressing health issues attributed to living under the specter of nuclear fallout, Chernobyl Heart brings a spotlight to the equally heartbreaking living conditions most of these people are in. Pervasive poverty seems to influence every aspect of this horrific situation – from the less than human care given to the disabled and abandoned children, to the footage of elder people who refuse to move from their homeland despite it being contaminated with radiation at dangerous degrees. Yet, people are still reluctant to move because they do not want to abandon the country and land they were born on.
At a runtime of around 40 minutes, there's really no excuse to not watch this horribly depressing and yet important documentary. We're still to this day dealing with the nuclear fallout of Chernobyl with over one million children continuing to live in contaminated zones throughout Eastern Europe. The nuclear fallout we're terrified of experiencing in the present is already happening, and continues to happen for decades to come.
The Lurking Terror in Our Backyards: Command and Control (2016)
The end of the world will most likely begin with the words "uh oh." In fact, it was those same words that almost heralded in the end of the state of Arkansas in 1980. Command and Control is a riveting minute-by-minute account of an incident that occurred at a Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile silo in Damascus, Arkansas. Told through a mix of reenactments and interviews, Command and Control paints a terrifying picture of how a causal and seemingly minute mistake can quite literally turn into a life or death situation in a matter of minutes. Even more terrifying, with over 5000 of these nuclear silos scattered throughout the United States, odds are it can and most likely will happen again in our near future.
Command and Control is definitely in the top ten most intense theatre experiences I've had. For a documentary that I knew the end of (of course there was no nuclear meltdown in Arkansas...yet!), it kept me in a permanent cringe of horror for roughly half the film. What really struck me about this story of the Damascus incident was the shockingly young age of the experts who run these missile facilities. The fact that a group of teenagers were essentially in control of destroying large cities at any given moment is no mistake; younger minds are typically more susceptible to propaganda, as well as the belief in the black and white concept of good and evil. The interviewees talk about how they were completely comfortable and ready to press that button and destroy major Russian cities if and when necessary, and yet all admit they were scarred for life over this experience of seeing a small number of their coworkers die – not to mention potentially being responsible for having blown up several of their own cities. It's quite telling about warfare and death in general, how easy it is to kill millions but hard to see individuals die. Much like Radio Bikini, it's shocking to see the faceless war-machine at work, one that won't even inform the Vice President when a potential nuclear meltdown is occurring.
Much like all of these documentaries, the whole incident just struck me as sad. All of the people interviewed are still suffering the effects of PTSD over this one incident that occurred, essentially, in their childhoods. It's a fascinating look into a horrible event that could have been even worse, but it certainly doesn't make you feel any better. Watching this documentary is akin to being told how and when you'll die by a psychic; it leaves you with the sense that while we made it out this time relatively unscathed, incidents like this are inevitable as we're only humans and they're only nuclear warheads. So you may as well mix yourself up a cocktail, kick back, and just laugh and/or cry over what will most likely be our collective fate.