“Oppenheimer” isn’t first film to focus on dangers of nuclear power


There is little doubt that director Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” will receive a substantial number of Oscar nominations on March 10th of next year. The film traces the development of the first two atomic bombs, and the paranoia that dictated America’s cold war policy throughout the 1950s. It stars Cillian Murphy in the title role as the director of the top-secret Manhattan Project, and Emily Blunt as Kitty, his wife whose life has been marred by his ambition. Matt Damon leads an all-star ensemble cast as General Leslie Groves, the Army’s Project Manager and head of security, assigned to make sure the gaggle of scientists, secluded in the high desert of Los Alamos, New Mexico, meet their deadlines and are ultimately successful. The movie is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “American Prometheus” by Kai Bird and Martin J Sherwin.

With the release last week of “Oppenheimer” on DVD, Blu-Ray, and streaming services, we thought we would explore several films that tackle the history and dangers of nuclear power and nuclear weapons.

Take One

The threat to mankind in the militarization of nuclear weapons is clear: mutually-assured destruction is now a reality. But perhaps even more sinister is the threat that lurks in our backyards. These are the two films from the late 70s and early 80s which disturbingly capture what happens when a nuclear accident hits home.

“The China Syndrome” (1979) refers to the hypothetical scenario in which a nuclear meltdown would lead to radioactive material burning through the reactor, Earth’s crust, and then the planet itself, all the way until it reaches China on the opposite side of the globe. Never mind that this scenario defies the laws of gravity and other sciences; it makes for one hell of a scary nightmare! The film stars Jane Fonda as a reporter on a tour of a nuclear power facility, and Michael Douglas as her hot-blooded cameraman. They witness a potentially serious incident unfold in almost unbearable tension, which the nuclear power company later downplays and tries to cover up. Jack Lemmon is outstanding as the plant supervisor who turns on his employer to ensure the truth comes forward. The movie, dismissed as “sheer fiction” by the nuclear power industry, was released just twelve days before the infamous Three Mile Island incident, which shocked the general public and bolstered ticket sales.

In Mike Nichols’ “Silkwood”, the nuclear power industry isn’t just deceitful, it’s sinister. Based on the true story of Karen Silkwood, a Oklahoman Kerr-McGee chemical technician and union activist who died under suspicious circumstances on her way to meet a New York Times reporter in 1974. Meryl Streep plays the titular character, and does so with vivid aplomb and vulnerability. She’s matched in equally stunning form by Cher, as her best friend, colleague, and acid-tongued lesbian friend, Dolly Pelliker, along with a sultry Kurt Russell as Silkwood’s boyfriend. Silkwood, already on the radar of the nuclear plant’s operators for her labor activism, becomes embroiled in a potential cover-up of misplaced plutonium, and increasingly suspects that she has been deliberately poisoned. The plant’s actions towards her are shockingly brusque and callous, most notably in a bone-chilling “shower sequence” that is enough to burrow deep into the imagination of anyone who wonders what goes on in nuclear power facilities near our hometowns. Nichols’ direction is pointedly somber, elevating his characters and their lives over the procedural elements of the story.

Take Two

The man who piloted the B-29 Superfortress that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima was Lt. Col. Paul Tibbets, Jr. and he, his mission, and the strains it placed on his marriage, are the subjects of the film “Above and Beyond” (1952) by directing partners Melvin Frank and Norman Panama. The development of the “gadget” (personnel were forbidden to call it a bomb) and the delivery of the same over the skies of Hiroshima by the crew of the Enola Gay (named after Tibbets’ mother) are told in semi-documentary style. 30s and 40s movie star Robert Taylor portrays Tibbets, with Eleanor Parker as his wife, Lucy. Due to the high divorce rate among WWII aviators, the U.S. government wanted the film to focus on Tibbets personal life, although most regard the aviation sequences as far superior.

One of my favorite Japanese films is director Shohei Imamura’s startling “Black Rain” (1989), that portrays the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima and the aftereffects from the Japanese perspective. Based on the best-selling Japanese novel of the same name, by author Masuji Ibuse, the film is full of harrowing scenes of death and destruction, along with the heartbreaking suffering of the populace who had no warning and could not comprehend the long-term effects of radiation poisoning. Unlike the hyper-realistic 1953 film “Hiroshima”, by director Hideo Sekigawa, heavily censored and long banned in the United States, “Black Rain” is more balanced and considered in its approach to what took place on August 6, 1945 and its impact on Japanese society. Sekigawa’s 1953 film was withdrawn from viewing for decades but can now be found on streaming services.

This column is written jointly by a baby boomer Denny Parish, and a millennial, Carson Parish, who also happen to be father and son.

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