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Nuclear Nonchalance

Truly one of the most horrifying and important discoveries of the modern age is the application of nuclear power. Used as a weapon, it is one of the most destructive forces on the planet. Witness its full impact in Radio Bikini, a succinct gem hidden away on Netflix. The film focuses on the true extent of government power when it comes to testing weaponry, and their complete disregard for the lives of those they consider expendable.

Radio Bikini covers a series of atom bomb detonations over Bikini Atoll, located in the Marshall Islands. The film specifically focuses on the first set of military tests which began in 1946 and were code-named Operation Crossroads. The native inhabitants of Bikini were ordered to move off the island, with the promise that once the area was deemed safe, they could move back (which, at the point of the films release, had yet to happen). The tests were meant to accomplish two things: 1) Determine what a nuclear strike on a naval army would look like. 2) Show how destructive nuclear weapons were, in the hope that other nations would not use them. The military used their own soldiers as test subjects, positioning 42,000 men and women on ships just outside of the blast radius. Although they avoided the initial deadly radiation blast, they were ordered to stick around for 30 days in the irradiated environment.

The film was directed by Robert Stone and was honoured with an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature.  Its simple construction made up of declassified military footage, as well as radio and television broadcasts, focused my attention on the meat of the story. Released in 1988, the only recent footage it contains is two interviews, one with Kilon Bauno, Chief of the Bikinians, and one with former soldier John Smitherman. The soundtrack switches between sad instrumental songs, and pop hits of the 40’s, which are quite haunting in context. The music effectively steered me emotionally as I bore witness to the terrifying power of the nuke and the disturbing aftermath of the military tests.

Radio Bikini, which is named for the temporary radio station positioned on the island shortly before Operation Crossroads began, is firmly against the destructive powers of nuclear energy. There are no interviews with anyone other than the victims of the disaster, and the focus is entirely on what is portrayed to be completely useless nuclear testing and the sheer callousness of the United States government for putting its servicemen at risk. Smitherman notes that none of the servicemen were informed as to what the tests were, nor the possible dangers of their involvement. The complete lack of consent is galling, and highlights the American governments decision to sacrifice a few for the ‘greater good’.

Although this film makes its anti-nuclear sentiments very clear, I wonder if Stone’s argument could have improved or suffered had he tracked down other soldiers. Smitherman hints that many others have had their health affected like him, though we are never given any conclusive proof. Having done my own (albeit, surface) research on the matter, studies done in the 1990’s showed that while veterans involved in these tests could expect to die sooner than soldiers who were not involved, they did not develop cancer at increased rates. This of course made me wonder if Smitherman was focused on because of his shocking and extreme mutations.

Clocking at a brief 56 minutes, this documentary is sure to get your blood boiling and out to your nearest anti-nuclear protest.