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. 



  1. As a relevant aside, my father, who was one of the few Afro-Americans posted with the Seabees in WWII, was with the advance groups to support the photography and research groups entering Nagasaki after the bombing, and he’d remark that as horrific some of the “radiation sickness” symptoms were, they were no more shocking or different than the results of firebombing and fire-throwers (who as demonizes the oil companies for that?). That such uniquely demonic press emphasis was particularly placed on atomic bomb injuries later wryly amused those advance teams back home. It’s hard for me — at least in the U.S. — to frown on how “Atomic” portrayed nuclear energy. There has been virtually zero mass public education on the merits and safety/mortality record of nuclear power since the late fifties (at least outside Disney!) to lend perspectives to its pros and cons. That Hollywood (the latest how “The Martian” displayed _buried_ RTGs on Mars with skulls and crossbones) and scare-mentaries like “Atomic” run roughshod over nuclear’s fact can only be expected where there’s a vacuum of public enlightenment. That anti-nukers get-over is because those involved in the nuclear game just sat smug on their arse for decades assuming they’d a product too good for the public to snub and would “get over” any bad images or accidents. You don’t have to research or over-intellectualize the reason. It’s smack right there on your movie/TV screen and supposedly accurate and unbiased “science” programming. If Tylenol and car companies and BP (Deepwater Horizon) Gulf can phoenix from terrible P.R. challenges into positive public light, so can nuclear shed its Darth Vader image but ONLY if its community balls up that worldwide they’re all in the same P.R. boat and and pass the cup among themselves to launch perpetual mass public education Ad campaigns to challenge the poison the antis and the sympathetic media have expertly sown for decades. So yes, “Atomic” was a malicious warped slander of nuclear, but I can’t fault the nature of their aim no more than I fault birds that they can fly. The onus is on nuclear to fight back and clear the record. I won’t hold my breath.

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY USA

    1. Yes. The science of the Martian is dubious. What person would bury an RTG (containing plutonium-238, or some such) underneath the sand on an uninhabited planet? A planet already drenched in the Sun’s radiation because it has no magnetic field to protect it. Artistic instinct is a poor guide for the documentarian.

  2. Fortunately most young people don’t have to get over Hiroshima and Chernobyl since they never got it in the first place. The smartphone generation is more likely to have a ‘whatever works’ attitude. SA had major power system incidents in both July and September 2016 and a repeat could be only months away. The film’s promoters should demonstrate how to solve these problems to make their point. Otherwise they seem quaint and irrelevant.

  3. In high school, my chemistry teacher sat us down for a double lesson and we watched Trinity and Beyond: The Atomic Bomb Movie, which had just been released. The fact that nuclear energy is barely mentioned within, and Chernobyl not at all, didn’t strike me at the time.

    Chernobyl, that ultimate distraction. It has comparable bearing on the design, regulation and operation of modern nuclear reactors as China’s Banqiao dam has on the popular micro-hydro capacity being built today, or even on Snowy Hydro, Hydro Tasmania or the proposed Kidston pumped storage project in northern Queensland.

    I might just rewatch Trinity instead if I want to remind myself of nuclear weapons. And the Moscow Symphony Orchestra’s performance is awesome.

  4. Thankyou Ben, for the excellent review of ‘Atomic’, a film which, fortunately, I have not had the pleasure of seeing.
    I have a better one for you to review. It was an ABC program called ‘River Monsters’, shown recently. It is all about a chap who goes fishing for a giant man-eating mutant cat fish which is rumoured to live in the cooling pond next the Chernobyl reactor. (Are you with me so far?)
    The bloke put in a magnificent effort, and managed to nab some beautiful fish, but unfortunately not the specimen of interest.
    Apparently, his dosimeter was getting close to the limit where he would start to glow in the dark, so he had to give up in order to keep body and soul together.
    Fabulous images of the reactor and Pripyat township. How do all those trees and animals manage to survive in such a contaminated exclusion zone?
    Excellent interview with a guy who is doing research on all the birds with three eyes and beaks attached the wrong way round. I hope he gets out before it’s too late.
    Clearly, some lefto in the ABC felt that it was a must see during this time of state nuclear debate.

  5. The media remarked on this months ago but it is confusing to know exactly what is being voted for or protested about
    A) going ahead with the intermediate level waste site near Hawker
    B) preparing a foreign high level waste facility with the help of Australian public funds
    C) nuclear electricity for SA specifically or Australia in general.

    If politics says no to B does that put the kibosh on C? Or more immediately does no to B kill off A? The radiology waste will stay in hospital basements and the casks of vitrified material will stay in a shed at Lucas Heights. My advice to Weatherill is to firstly let A quietly go ahead so after a couple of years people can notice whether they’ve been harmed or not.

  6. Today the PM is in Pt Lincoln to talk about energy security. I’m not sure what his options are.. maybe a hotline to east coast coal? Note SA Water thinks they will need a new River Murray pipeline or desal plant by 2025 since the 280 ML/d Whyalla desal didn’t go ahead. The other Eyre Peninsula connection is that central residents (Kimba etc) won’t allow nuclear transit which could make some proposals difficult.

    The farming thread on the Judith Curry blog questions whether the $200m spent on Sundrop Farm is a good way to grow 15,000 tonnes a year of tomatoes. It still needs plenty of grid electricity. Since it is just kilometres from the partly demolished Pt Augusta coal stations it is perhaps symbolic. Solar thermal triumphs over coal, so long as someone else pays the bills and provides winter heating.

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