Nuclear Cinema as Cultural Mirror

Sunagawa #5 (1955) by Nakamura Hiroshi. ANPO: Art x War.

Watch enough nuclear documentaries and it’s a self-sustaining Atomic Film Fest.

To better understand the history and cultural impact of the emergence of the A-bomb and the Cold War, I’ve popped in and out of my DVD player well over a dozen of these flicks. Titles include: The Day After Trinity (1981), Atomic Cafe (1982), Radio Bikini (1987), White Light/Black Rain (2007) and last year’s Countdown to Zero (2010); plus extras like original US Department of Energy (DOE) propaganda films, deleted scenes and interviews.

Though all are on a topic most of us, including myself, would prefer to avoid, I watched them as part of my commitment to following the Neutron Trail.

The intertwined issues of nuclear bombs, nuclear energy and toxic waste have literally brought us to a crossroads in our cultural evolution. How will we find new paradigms and ways to live in the world we’re creating?

Each of these documentary films has a distinct voice to add to the conversation about our shared nuclear legacy. Each finds its own way to confront us with our nuclear dilemmas. Together they create a strange portrait of our collective consciousness around atomic and hydrogen bombs.

The challenge of writing coherently about this private Neutron Trail Film Fest inspired me to pull out colored sticky notes — one for each movie. The following color groupings were spontaneous, more influenced by the pre-conscious than the conscious mind.

I chose green stickies for films with a high content of original interviews with the people who were part of the creation of the bomb and its immediate aftermath.

I used orange for films weaving interviews and archival footage to shed light on the cultural phenomenon of the nuclear bomb and the Cold War. Blue for made outside of North America. One film, which brushes close to reality, I put onto a pink sticky.

A group of fear-based fact films I tagged with white. White is neutral and blank. Though absolutely necessary as the strongest warnings in the chorus of nuclear cinema, I don’t particularly enjoy messages of terror.

Each sticky note went onto the white board and patterns emerged in the placement and the color arrangements. I was looking for an entry point.

Starting with a grouping of three whites and two greens would certainly make for a depressingly sober review of nuclear terror cinema and the threat to all life as we know it.

That would mean starting with Nuclear Tipping Point (2010), sticky white fright category. The film features Henry Kissinger and three other Cold War Warriors of the US administration. Kissinger was a proponent of the let’s-point-thousands-of-ever-more-powerful-nukes-at-each-other doctrine dubbed Mutually Assured Destruction (M.A.D.). He acknowledges after thirty years he couldn’t make sense of M.A.D. doctrine or rather of nuclear weapons strategy — period.

A row of orange stickies in the center of the white board, symbolizing the center of this nuclear topic, promised a patchwork of cultural insights into the nuclear-tinged psyche of North Americans. If I were to start my A-Bomb Cinema review from this angle, I would lead with Atomic Café (1982). It’s full of archival footage and propaganda songs expertly put together in service of illuminating the effects of the Cold War on us.

Each theme, each film seemed important – too important for me to choose one as the starting point. Then, I noticed Scared Sacred (2004) on an orange sticky, separate from the others, in the top right corner of the white board.

Looking for the sacred in the scared, Velcrow Ripper, director, visited and filmed eight ground zeros across the planet – from Hiroshima, where the first atomic bomb was dropped on civilians (1945); to Bhopal, India, where hundreds of thousands of citizens were subjected to a Union Carbide chemical leak (1984); to New York City and the destruction of the World Trade Center (2001).

Wherever he goes, Ripper interacts with people to learn about the original crisis and to document how locals are coping and responding now to what happened then.

Thinking back on the film, which I watched some months ago, it strikes me there was no particular Hosanna moment. Rather, this is a film about the simplicity and importance of witnessing the whole kaleidoscope of human experience, as we go along.

Ripper accentuates his redemptive message by focussing on the wounds of the planet – our collective ground zero’s. The sacred in the scared is something I instinctively know – the sacred is in every moment of being alive and this film’s human-scale portrayal of disasters beyond comprehension brings the reality of the film’s title to life.

The other atomic movies I watched may have richer content, stronger cinematography and more to say about the facts of our nuclear era and the terrain of the Neutron Trail. Scared Sacred suggests a new paradigm from which to view all the others.

Seeing this, I made a new category yellow representing paradigm shift. Here then is a summary of 15 nuclear documentaries by category.


Films suggesting a paradigm shift.

Broadly, Scared Sacred (2004) includes content beyond the bomb, placing the bomb in context with human-made-cataclysms everywhere. Profoundly, it is a documentary which, moment by moment, fuses the human, in all our foibles with the sacred.

Scared Sacred hints at the ultimate paradigm — the one which melts divisions. It is with a new objectivity we need to tackle our twin nuclear dilemmas (bombs and hazardous waste). Not the clinical objectivity, not the propaganda masquerading as objectivity but the objective reality of the human connection we share in the scared and the sacred.

This paradigm tells me each of us is relevant. By rediscovering ourselves in our collective humanity, we empower ourselves. By empowering ourselves we can humbly accept responsibility for the next step, within our grasp. We can move forward with individual and collective resolve to do it better. With a mess this big, how else to proceed?


Films waking us up to the threat of unchecked and unmonitored nuclear weapons proliferation.

If You Love This Planet (1982), the Oscar winning short doc, directed by Terre Nash is Dr. Helen Caldicott’s humane and passionate call for nuclear disarmament.


Last Days On Earth (2006), originally a TV special on 20/20, runs through seven Armageddon scenarios including nuclear annihilation. Puts the idea of ultimate control where it belongs – somewhere out in the universe.


Countdown to Zero (2010), directed by Lucy Walker, with Tony Blair, Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, Robert McNamara, Pervez Musharraf, and Valerie Plame Wilson. A mix of reasoned and fear–based arguments promoting strategic, yet complete global disarmament. Click on logo to sign the Global Zero petition:
Global Zero :: Get Involved :: Sign the Declaration

Nuclear Tipping Point (2010): the film’s protagonists Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, George Schultz and William Perry suggest we shift our motivation for global disarmament from terror of Russia to terror of emerging rogue states and rebels. Tragically, the words humanity, environment and interdependence and are not uttered in this movie. The key question What really stops war? is never asked nor answered! Nor does it seem any of the four has the signed the Global Zero petition (see above).


Films weaving interviews and archival footage to portray the impact of the nuclear bomb, the Cold War and its aftermath on our society.

Building Bombs (1981), directed and produced by Susan Robinson and Mark Mori. Five years in the making, this film is a must see. You will learn all about the Savannah River Plant, outside Aiken, South Carolina, tasked in the 1950’s with building nukes for the nation. The filmmakers explore the history of the plant, the eye-popping bungling of toxic waste handling and the contamination risks to one of the largest underground freshwater aquifers in the U.S. Especially inspiring are interviews with experts, who at one time worked inside the plant but now are part of the movement to expose the waste handling risks. Get involved and see what’s happening at Savannah Riverkeeper: A Network of Environmental Advocates working to protect the water quality of the Savannah River and the integrity of its watershed.

Atomic Café (1982), produced and directed by Jayne Loader, Kevin Rafferty and Pierce Rafferty. While the film’s pace is a bit slow by today’s standard, I’ve watched it twice and will likely watch it again for the sheer volume of culturally revealing archival footage from the 1940’s and 1950’s. For example, I learned M.A.D. drove us crazy and I’m not talking about M.A.D. magazine. It seems the mental health crisis in America started with people’s healthy fear of being annihilated by nukes. There’s even a clip of a handsome, young Richard Nixon (later became a U.S. President) ringing a giant bell for sanity. Another highlight was seeing 1950’s citizens marching with placards protesting the bomb.

Radio Bikini (1987), award-winning, Oscar nominated documentary by Robert Stone. The director combines declassified US Army footage with contemporary interviews to weave a powerful exposé of Cold War policy meets human fragility. Sequences from 1946 show a military officer explaining to the Bikini islanders why they must leave their home (to allow the U.S. to test a hydrogen bomb thus obliterating their island). Equally, if not more revealing, is the then and now footage of the impact on servicemen. I’m not rating all the films here, but Radio Bikini gets a 10/10 for cinematic excellence, compelling story-telling and sheer courage.

Arid Lands (2007), directed by Grant Aaker, Josh Wallaert. Any movie about the Columbia River Basin must include Hanford, Washington the once secret site where plutonium for the first atomic bombs was purified. Hanford covers an area half of the size of Rhode Island and the Columbia runs through it. The movie glimmers and flows like an ambling river as the directors weave scenic vistas among interviews with a broad variety of stakeholders to the area – geologists, ecologists, a Native elder representing a nation who lost their lands, local residents and more. The mistaken (implicit) message of the film is while Hanford Nuclear Reservation hosts the greatest volume of radioactive material in America and is the site of the largest clean-up operation, to date no one has been hurt? This is a shame as too many of the interviews are repetitive. The story of the accidents and the people who have been poisoned by mishandling of radioactive materials at Hanford could have filled the wasted airtime and fleshed out the story. More information and a call to action: Physicians for Social Responsibility.


North American films featuring original interviews with the people who were part of the creation of the bomb and its immediate aftermath.

United Sates Department of Energy Military Training Films (1940’s – 1950’s). Can be found in the extras on Countdown to Zero and many other titles here.

Leaders have been calling for nuclear weapons oversight and disarmament since the Day After Trinity (1981). This must–see film features interviews with Robert Oppenheimer and others who were directly involved with building the first atomic bombs.

Trinity and Beyond: the Atomic Bomb Movie (1995), directed by Peter Kuran, narrated by William Shatner, with Edward Teller. Produced for the 50th anniversary of the creation and use of the first atomic bombs. Almost a catalog of above–ground nuclear tests during the Cold War. This film graphically showcases the posturing and one-upmanship the U.S.A. and Russia engaged in during the Cold War.


Films portraying a view from outside of North America.

White Light/Black Rain: the Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (2007) by Steven Okazaki is a moving and highly watchable film. The survivors themselves tell the story poignantly, artfully and directly.

ANPO Art x War (2010), produced and directed by Linda Hoaglund. ANPO is the treaty between the U.S.A. and Japan allowing the U.S. to occupy Japan with military bases and, for which, the host pays its guest. Japanese artists who have protested the treaty and its impact on Japanese culture speak to camera with their works as backdrop. This highly crafted documentary with original score includes fascinating Japanese historical footage.


Films bending reality.

Naqoyqatsi (2002) (NAH-COY-KAHT-SEE) by Godfrey Reggio, musical score by Philip Glass and Yo-yo Ma on cello called me to write poetically:

With dream-like realism, life merges into death and back again
The filmmakers show us life as war.

Film sequences rendered in all scales, chanting music
Sings to the senses

Voiceless dark pyramid emerging upward rising tide
Broken dissolves utterly
Waves crashing, music chanting Naqoyqatisi, Naqoyqatsi, Naqoyqatsi
Computer bits and bytes in rushing rows,

Neon DNA tracings race to fill the screen
Golden dollar signs ($) float to the sky
Cello sounds carry us onward, without pause

As if through X-ray or atomic bomb blast witness eyes
Human throng treads eternally in reverse exposure
Where light is dark, dark is light yet moves and bobs
Humans always do…
With their reverse exposure videos – fights in rings, riots on roads

Patterns recognizable yet lost in a swirl of recurring disappearing
Life as war, life as imagination, life as meaning mashed up
Sliced, diced – each bit recognizable and unanchored

Colored capsules tranquilizers shield our sleep
While politicians posture security
Space capsule launches tear the air
Piercing something unseen made visual
Until we imagine outer space

This Tower of Babel Opus reminds us to listen and transcend
Or surrender to the tide

Reflections on where we are
Sounding our death knell?
Offering a battle cry to awareness?

You decide!

Posted in Nuclear Movie & Book Reviews.

One Response to Nuclear Cinema as Cultural Mirror

  1. Interesting analysis, beautiful poem. 🙂 I remember seeing Atomic Café when it first came out—time to revisit this interesting film. I’ve added Scared Sacred to my Netflix Q.

    The nuclear winter movie Threads (1984) is a documentary-style drama that stuck with me long after viewing, with elements of “white fright,” as you say, but sticking firmly to ordinary, realistic, day-to-day lives. Even as the existence becomes horrific (to us), the surviving protagonists (especially the children) adapt and accept what becomes the new norm with unsettling dispassion.

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