Politics At The Movies

Atomic Mom

Directed by M.T. Silva

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 WinterFest.

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 years since.

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.

Blue Valentine

Directed by Derek Cianfrance

If you like your films to be fun and fluffy escapism from a 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 ex-boyfriend. They’re both good people with good intentions, although we’re given the impression that she’s annoyed by his lack of ambition, especially given that circumstances curtail hers. 

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 a result.

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 gain an MPAA “R” rating rather than the box office and video rental killing “NC-17.” 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 lac
k 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)

The Dilemma
Directed by Ron Howard

This is labeled as a comedy but, while certainly funny in 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. The story 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 ensemble 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.  (Opens January 14)

Season of the Witch
Directed by Dominic Sena

This is an appallingly bad film on every level. Its main 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.

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