Doc of the Day: Radio Bikini Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: Radio Bikini

Posted in Days of Docs by - April 27, 2012

 We dropped the first bombs in 1945. A year later, we did it again, just for the hell of it.

Dir. Robert Stone, 1988, 56 min

This is one of the scariest movies I have ever seen. Watching Radio Bikini is like watching children play heedlessly on the edge of a volcano, magnified a billion-fold. It encapsulates absolutely everything that was wrong with our country after World War II. It’s a stronger condemnation of nuclear weapons as Pandora’s Box than a thousand Countdown to Zero‘s. It will make you wonder how the hell me haven’t blown ourselves up yet.

In July 1946, the United States undertook Operation Crossroads, a test of the effects of nuclear weapons in a naval environment. We came to the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific, evacuated the residents of Bikini, gathered a small fleet of obsolete ships, and dropped two bombs on them. The sailors who worked on and witnessed the tests wore no protection. Many would later die of radiation-related sickness. To this day, the natives cannot return to their home, which is still irradiated. The two-piece swimsuit debuted within days of the test. That’s why we call them bikinis. Life is so weird.

The movie uses newsreel footage and the government’s own propaganda as its raw material. Some of the most damning stuff comes from seeing them reshoot officials “explaining” the situation to the Bikini residents, or a church service held before the bomb drops. Two interviews, one with a sickly former serviceman who worked on the test, and another with a displaced Bikini man, grant a larger context, and make clear the full implications of what was done.

Watching this movie is so surreal. Barely anyone has any idea what’s going on. Barely anyone can grasp even a fraction of the power that is being casually thrown about here. The few who can, such as the scientists of the Manhattan Project, are ignored. There are a few protesting in Washington. They understand what a nuclear war means. They understand the kind of world we live in now, one where war can’t be fought the way it was before. They are ignored. Even after the tests, observers can’t see it for anything more than a big fireworks show, talking about how underwhelmed they are, while poison settles into their bones.

Radio Bikini is a film of the twentieth century. You can see the seeds of the cold war begin to sprout, as the international community argues over what the US is doing. Our casual disregard for the welfare of people who aren’t us sets the stage for a half century and more of American foreign policy. Our casual disregard for the welfare of our own citizens sets the stage for a half century and more of sacrificing people in the name of security. And it goes on, because too many still don’t understand it.

This documentary is profound, but in a very quiet, non-bombastic way (ironic, given the subject matter). It speaks a whole choir without outright saying much. It doesn’t have to, and it knows it doesn’t. The film trusts that viewing a nuclear explosion will chill us to our core, even if the same can’t be said of its characters. It trusts that maybe, just maybe, we’ve learned something since Operation Crossroads. The purpose of the test, after all, was to see if a nuclear arsenal could replace conventional armies and navies. We at least learned one thing from it, even if it came from too high a cost. Hopefully, we don’t have to pay anything more to learn about nukes. We can’t afford to.

This post was written by
Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.
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