When it premiered at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, “the bomb” was presented as a live concert experience, giving the hour long documentary an immersive, communal feel. Now, over a year later and released into a strikingly different world, “the bomb” still keeps that same level of potency, even away from the confines of a theater. Directed by Kevin Ford, Smriti Keshari, and Eric Schlosser, this experimental, sensory history of the nuclear bomb is a staggering look at the world’s most destructive weapon and the lessons of almost eight decades that some still choose to ignore.
Threading together modern-day news footage, Cold War era safety videos and grainy archival peeks into the construction process, “the bomb” looks at nuclear weapons in their myriad historic forms. It covers the standard historical hallmarks of assembling, testing and launching these armed missiles, but it also considers the cultural hold that they’ve had on our collective consciousness since the day Los Alamos became a global focal point.
Foregoing the usual talking head interviews or explanatory narration, the one piece of connective tissue throughout the film, besides the subject itself, is the film’s score, from Los Angeles electronic minimalist outfit The Acid. Throughout a harrowing parade of images and fleeting moments of whimsy, the droning, pulsating music underneath brings an alternating sense of dread and power.
With this more collage-like approach to history, “the bomb” serves as an effective companion piece to “Command and Control,” last year’s documentary about the 1980 Titan II missile accident in Damascus, Arkansas chronicled in Schlosser’s 2013 book. That episode is revisited here, but included as part of a non-linear mashup of meltdown near-misses. With on-screen animations incorporating schematics, equations and field report excerpts, this film is designed to be at times as chaotic and unknowable as the full repercussions of using these weapons themselves.
As far as documenting the detonations themselves, “the bomb” lingers on the mesmerizing nature of these mushroom clouds, especially as they collapse in on themselves and evolve in the upper atmosphere. But the film doesn’t fetishize devastation. Instead, it pays close attention to the deadly aftermath and the victims of the instances when these weapons have been used in battle. It shows this not just through contemporaneous artwork but through footage of a devastated Japanese town leveled to its foundation. Appropriately, this chapter is presented in silence.
There’s also power in the way that these images are organized. This is not a purely chronological look at the development and implementation of the hydrogen bomb. Placing the community and work of The Manhattan Project where they do in this experimental timeline speaks to the truly unprecedented nature of its work. And by using footage from all across the nuclear bomb’s lifespan, it reinforces the idea that this is a scourge that’s been with us for nearly as long as cinema has. From the black-and-white images outside Alamogordo to iPhone footage shot at a makeshift missile launch site, this has always been a simmering part of human existence.
Based on that ever-present nature, “the bomb” also shows the too-often occurrences where humanity escaped even bigger catastrophe. A collection of failed launches and mid-air explosions show the severity of those mistakes. But it also finds the blackest of comedy in the absurdity of rocket-fueled projectiles swirling through the air, even when they’re carrying nuclear material. (In one particular instance, you can even hear one dejected soul shout “No!” in the background.)
Watching “the bomb” is a distinct visual experience, but it also touches on the inadequacy of our language to discuss the implications of having this power. It’s surreal to hear people in any age talk about nuclear protocol in terms of hours or days, in the shadow of something so titanic that its effects have persisted for decades. The “duck and cover” mentality that powered schoolhouse animation dovetails with our current simplistic notion that nuclear issues boil down to one person’s finger on a red button.
If there’s any positive ray of hope to take away from “the bomb,” it’s that we’re still alive to see it. With all of the near misses and maniacal forces trying to use this weapon for ultimate devastation, the idea that we’ve been able to avert widespread disaster at nearly every turn holds the idea that we can continue to do it even as new dangers mount.
It’s the thread that runs through a stunning closing segment, an ending that somehow provides optimism and helplessness in equal measure. That’s the balance that comes across and much of the rest of the hour, the idea that knowledge of history only counts for so much; with survival comes overconfidence. Who knows how many future generations will be around to watch something like this, but while we still can, it’s a helpful consolidation of everything that’s come before us.
“the bomb” is now available to stream on Netflix.