Showing Monday, Jan. 17 at 3:30 p.m. at the Crest Theatre, 1013 K St. as part of the Sacramento Film and Music Festivals
Many years ago, I saw a documentary about the soldiers
who positioned around the nuclear test blasts in Nevada
in the 1940s and 1950s. It included several interviews with these men, older,
sitting in chairs, describing their experiences and
the many health problems they had experienced in the
Near the end of the film, the camera panned backwards
on one man who had appeared in several segments. We
see him sitting calmly in a chair. His left hand is
resting on his knee. Due to a rare cancer, his hand
was the size of a Thanksgiving turkey. The interview
stopped, and words rolled across the screen saying
he died weeks after it was recorded.
In endless litigation, the U.S. Army had claimed it
didn’t know how dangerous it was to be so close to these
blasts. But the U.S. Navy, operating around the very
same explosions, knew very clearly what the radiation
could do. They positioned mice cages at similar distances,
then killed them and documented the damage in necropsies.
Many had internal organs entirely destroyed by gamma
ray radiation. Many weren’t any closer than the soldiers.
One of the people dissecting these mice was a 23-year-old named Pauline Silvia. Growing up during World War
II, she saw women and minorities be given opportunities
they had never had before, only to see them yanked
away when the men came home from war. So, as a young
biologist given an opportunity to work on cutting-edge research, she understandably took the nuclear
research position with the Navy. At the time, it must
be remembered, the armed forces were more integrated
and open than most of the rest of the society.
But “Atomic Mom” isn’t a story about rads and research. It’s a very personal tale about the relationship between
Pauline and her daughter M.T., who becomes an anti-nuclear activist in the 1980s - until her mom asks her stop, which she does. Years
later, Pauline finally comes clean about her own fears
and regrets about what she had done.
The relationship, and the descriptions of what day-to-day life were like working on nuclear testing, form
the strongest aspects of the film. By the very nature
of the research they were doing, Silvia and her coworkers
had to know how dangerous the tests were. A single
test would have been enough to know that you shouldn’t assign your own soldiers to wait six miles from a
blast. Instead they did hundreds. Silvia describes
walking around in the hours after a blast, their pants
and sleeves taped shut, no masks of any kind of their
faces. When they got back to the barracks, they took
normal showers, the radioactive dust that covered them
just floating down the drain.
This is new ground for many. The weaker parts of the
film cover the ground we all know, including the now-freakish seeming culture around nuclear weapons at
the time: the nuclear-themed attractions across Nevada, the sci-fi movies, the idea that kids could duck-and-cover like they did for a tornado. At times, the film
tries to do too much, weaving in how the Nevada test
site was stolen from the Shoshone Indians and other
threads (though if you want to know more about our nation’s relationship with Western Indians and with our nuclear
programs, read the excellent book “Savage Dreams” by Rebecca Solnit, a memoir/history which compares the history of the Yosemite
Valley in the 19th Century with the Nevada test site in the 20th).
Visits to Hiroshima, and time spent with a survivor,
certainly add some emotional weight. But when Emiko
Okada hands an origami crane to Silvia, we know that
Silvia didn’t work on the Manhattan Project that produced the bomb
that maimed Okada and wiped out much of her family.
She was just a cog, albeit a groundbreaking one, in
the far more massive nuclear-industrial complex that came later.
At its best, “Atomic Mom” is a story about the transitions people make. Pauline’s journey to regret, and becoming comfortable regretting
what she did, mirrors her daughter’s growing understanding of why she made these choices.
It’s about how good people can disagree and change their
minds. It’s also a story about people realizing that their government
would lie to them and do the kinds of barbaric things
we were told only Nazis and communists did - though of course the post-war nuclear program was rife with former Nazis for
a time. Much of our nation’s sorry nuclear past is well-known. To someone who knows a lot about it, this film
won’t cover a lot of new ground. But it tells a touching
story, in a way that will make this material palatable
for a less morbid audience.
Other Winterfest political documentaries: Sunday, Jan. 16 at 1:30 p.m., “Death or Taxes: The Sad Truth About Our American Taxation System.” Tells how our ever-more confusing tax system hits the little guys while
letting corporations off.
Monday, Jan. 17 at 1:30 p.m., “Lost Harmony.” A Japanese man who lived years in the United States
explores the complex and unequal relationship between
the two countries.
Monday, Jan. 17 at 5:30 p.m., “Sowing the Seeds of Justice.” A look at the life of civil rights lawyer Cruz Reynoso.
Directed by Derek Cianfrance
If you like your films to be fun and fluffy escapism
cruel or difficult world, then “Blue Valentine” isn’t for you. If you like deep
and difficult escapism from a fun and fluffy world,
then you’re in better shape
– although this is less deep and more difficult. It’s a non-linear examination
of the beginning and end of a relationship and marriage,
with very little to
hint at what failed in between.
Ryan Gosling plays Dean to Michelle Williams’ Cindy, a
couple who meet completely by chance and fall into
a sweet and simple love
affair, despite obstacles such as her angry and violent
both good people with good intentions, although we’re given the impression that
she’s annoyed by his lack of ambition, especially given
There’s really very little actual story being told, it’s
more like a series of observations that lead people
to a certain place in their
life and the decisions that result from it. Cindy has
seen her parents stay
together in an unhappy marriage and Dean saw his separate
when he was young –
and we’re given reason to believe that each believes their
parents did the
wrong thing and failed their respective children as
This is a film of raw emotions and powerful, complicated
performances. It’s interesting to see Gosling after the recent “All Good
Things” as a good-looking young actor who isn’t afraid to take unattractive
roles, including age progressions that are believable
yet equally unflattering.
Williams proves again that she can manage the full
range of emotions in an
honest and fresh manner.
It’s also a film that struggled, through an appeal, to
an MPAA “R” rating rather than the box office and video rental
It serves as a good example of the ratings board’s reluctance to allow a sex
scene that strays too far from the missionary journey
while being quite
comfortable to permit graphic violence of the slicing
and dicing kind in any
number of teen horror movies.
“Blue Valentine” will be discussed primarily for the
performances. They are strong and uncompromising, and
likely to be
uncomfortable for some to watch. But not all film should
be easy, and the
discomfort is a result of the believability of the
situations and the lack of
an overt villain. Some things fail without anybody
doing anything especially
wrong - and that can sometimes be harder to watch and take
than to root for a
good person to escape a bad person in a more conventional
story. This isn’t a
film that sets out to make itself easy to watch. (Opens January 14)
Directed by Ron Howard
This is labeled as a comedy but, while certainly funny
parts, the basic story about a guy who sees his best
friend’s wife cheating and
is torn about what to do with that knowledge is not
especially lighthearted. I
actually find movies like this scarier in some respects
than many horror films
because the situation seems far more plausible than
being attacked in a shower with
a chainsaw, and it’s an inherently awful position to find oneself in.
is a little forced, developments sometimes seem a little
arbitrary at times,
and the dialog doesn’t always feel tightly scripted (with at least some
probably improvised). But the acting is comfortable and loose from the
cast of Vince Vaughn, Kevin James, Jennifer Connelly,
Winona Ryder, and
Channing Tatum. Given that it’s directed by Ron Howard, the films feels well
put together, and there’s the obligatory cameo from his brother Clint. The
overall outcome is funny in parts, a little awkward
in others, and probably a
good conversation starter for couples or pairs of couples
moving on from the
theater to dinner.
Season of the Witch
Directed by Dominic Sena
This is an appallingly bad film on every level. Its
value is in establishing the low bar for film in 2011. The other upside is that
by the time you read this, you’re probably safe from the unfortunate outcome of
encountering this mess by virtue of the very low likelihood
of it lasting long
enough to see a second weekend in many theaters. It’s a bad sign when a new
film with a major star gets booked into the smallest
auditorium in a multiplex
for its opening weekend. Nic Cage’s financial woes may be even worse than I
thought, and this tale about transporting a suspected
witch to trial across
plague-infested medieval Europe isn’t going to help much. I can’t think of one
positive remark to make about the film itself, other
than that is wasn’t longer.