As I entered the theatre of Mercury Cinema, Adelaide, to view Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise, the thought struck that my previous visit was also for a nuclear documentary. On that occasion, Robert Stone’s Pandora’s Promise offered the Adelaide audience an arch-contemporary environmental narrative of challenges and choices in a complex world, grounded in historical legacies but with a firm eye on the future. In Atomic, director Mark Cousins roots us in a narrow vein of terrifying history with seemingly little interest in granting a leave pass for critical thought.
Fortunately for Cousins, he achieves this with a mostly-beautifully composed montage of historical footage accompanied by a transcendent original soundtrack by Scottish post-rockers Mogwai. Truly, the music is the consistent champion of this film, with this viewer frequently lulled to hypnosis only to reawaken in appreciation. It is only a shame Atomic doesn’t provide a superior film in partnership.
Evidently crafted as a tribute and memorial to the events and victims of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Atomic provides a never-redundant reminder of the horrors of war and the particularly existential period of the cold war nuclear terror. Based on the incredible footage of warning video played to citizens of the day, it is clear that Gen X and beyond will never truly grasp how formative these experiences were for the post-war generation.
When Atomic brings us, as we know it must, to the graphic and horrible footage of the results of atomic explosions in Japan, this viewer felt torn. Who could not feel a sense of abhorrence at these acts? Committed as I am to context and critical thought, it was difficult to ignore that death and destruction in Japan was never contingent on atomic weapons. The fire-bombing of Tokyo is considered the single deadliest bombing raid in history. It incinerated 100,000 civilians. Yet awareness of that event is nothing like that of the nuclear attacks. I had to ask myself why, and is this focus somehow reasonable or explainable?
I conclude it is a reasonable human response. World War 1 was the first great conflict of literature. When we combined the greatly expanded reach of the written word in this period with the newly mechanised destruction of mortar and machine gun, it seems humanity collective reached a point of pivot in our revulsion and fear of war and our awareness of our ability to kill each other in terrifyingly large numbers. The atomic attacks delivered that with the extra twist: one bomb. One plane. Maybe one decision maker. It was our next elevation, not in actual destruction, but in destructive potential. It changed the game. Being in a forgiving move, I forgave Atomic. It was not a WW2 docco, but a nuclear docco. Fair play.
Being entirely of historical footage it is striking that most of the nuclear conflict/testing/disarmament footage then seems to run dry around 1990. Given it is 2016 this is itself telling, surely, an important truth: the world has progressed and moved on from the most terrifying nuclear period. Certainly for this viewer, post the testing at Mururoa atoll, nuclear conflict and the threat thereof has been far from a defining experience. Notable conflicts have, if anything, been driven by an addiction to fossil fuels. While serious progress in disarmament has been irritatingly lacking, the world has clearly changed. It’s a major weakness of the film, in that it simply is not contemporary, giving the viewer nothing to contextualise nuclear conflict in 2016.
Most disappointing and surprising for me was that Atomic scarcely even attempted to broach the positive impacts of the nuclear power technology, biasing instead for a fascinating, beautiful and mostly doom-laden sequence of the Chernobyl accident. Cousins teases us with footage and dialogue from curiously resilient locals, seemingly even at the time determined not to abandon their home in the face of radiation and threat of expulsion or worse. These are characters Stone follows up on in Pandora’s Promise and it would not even surprise me to learn that the priest featured in the archival footage of Atomic was the same interviewed decades later in Pandora! Here the film simply failed to live up to the Dread and Promise ideal, giving us much dread and no promise. When we heard, for the second time, the wide-eyed child ask his Mr President why he dropped the atom bomb, immediately juxtaposed with a damaged Chernobyl reactor, this forgiving viewer ran out of forgiveness. Whether from ignorance or laziness (which so often come in pairs), in that moment Atomic departed from documentary and landed firmly in propaganda. When we saw the desperate shivering child survivor for a second time late in the film this viewer felt no longer moved but repelled. Once seemed a fitting recognition. Twice seemed to lurch toward exploitation.
Even the apparently redemptive applications of nuclear medicine are delivered as foreboding and terrifying. Humans are portrayed as figuratively and in some scenes quite literally as meat; passively accepting and receiving, powerless in the face of something powerful, external and invisible. This message is driven home with images of our churning sun, the fusion reactor that gives us all life, over which we have no control. That these medical techniques and technologies are conceived, designed, constructed, calibrated, operated by loving humans, that we integrate these technologies into our daily lives… perhaps this seemed too-jarring an angle to explore. Cousins appeared to have had no time to attempt a film of light and dark. The aesthetic is set early and holds throughout.
Provided aesthetic is what you care most about, definitely see Atomic. If you want to stretch your thinking and embrace the complex, stay at home and rent Pandora’s Promise.
I was a guest of Environmental Film Festival Australia. Thank you for having me.