It’s difficult to quantify the breadth of the effects of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; but since those pivotal August days in 1945 when World War II suddenly became a nuclear war, many filmmakers have attempted to capture the uncertainty that nuclear weapons have unleashed. You know that feeling of uncertainty. Anyone who saw that mushroom cloud exploding out of Beirut August 4 was filled with nuclear age dread, even though it appears, thankfully, as if no nuclear material was part of the blast.
“the bomb” is a film and art installation created by artist/filmmaker Smriti Keshari, Kevin Ford, and author Eric Schlosser (“Fast Food Nation”) that explores the threat of nuclear weapons and captures much of that anxiety. After premiering it at Berlin and Tribeca in 2017, the filmmakers have adapted it into a museum piece that will premiere at Pioneer Works. To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Pioneer Works is hosting “the bomb at 75,” a virtual experience on its web site, featuring artwork, video, archival footage, and original interviews about this pivotal moment in world history and the existential dangers that we still face. A teaser for “the bomb” is available above. Keshari and Schlosser put together an essential watch list for IndieWire with some of the films that have inspired the team. Here’s Keshari in her own words.
“Dr. Strangelove” (1964)
You can’t have a conversation about nuclear weapons without Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” sliding into the discussion. Whether you’re speaking with a B-52 pilot, a film festival audience, or the Department of Defense, “Dr. Strangelove” always comes up. Kubrick’s introduction to the subject matter was through Peter George’s book “Red Alert.” He immediately became obsessed and read everything he could get hold of about the bomb. Eric’s “Command and Control” [Schlosser’s non-fiction history of nuclear weapons that inspired “the bomb”] had that effect on me. The book reads like a thriller and is layered with paradoxes and deeper labyrinths set against the backdrop of a nuclear weapon incident in a missile silo near Damascus, Arizona in 1980. It’s impossible not to become immediately drawn to, obsessed with, and perplexed by the story and subject matter. After Kubrick exhausted the spectrum of reading material, he found it was this constant element of paradox in all the nuclear strategies and in the conventional attitudes toward them that he incorporated into the writing of “Dr. Strangelove.”
“When you start reading the analyses of nuclear strategy, they seem so thoughtful that you’re lulled into a temporary sense of reassurance,” Kubrick explained in an interview with The New Yorker in 1966. “But as you go deeper into it, and become more involved, you begin to realize that every one of these lines of thought leads to a paradox.”
My favorite part: There are so many iconic moments in the film, but it’s hard to beat Major “King” Kong, played by the rodeo performer/actor Slim Pickens, riding the nuclear weapon into oblivion. I can hear that enthusiastic scream in my ear as I type these words.
“Hiroshima, Mon Amour” (1959)
Historical world events mark our lives like dots on a timeline. To me, Renais’ 1959 feature debut, “Hiroshima, Mon Amour,” centers around the question: Where and who were you when you learned that the atomic bomb dropped? The film helped kick off the French New Wave, and centers around a two-day, romantic extra-marital affair between a French actress and her Japanese architect lover. Its much-lauded opening scene sets the background of the atomic bomb. It begins with a daring 15-minute introduction of close ups of elbows, heads and arms intertwined, leading to footage of the aftermath from Hiroshima. Renais’ groundbreaking experimentation with the structure of time dissolved barriers between the past, present, and future. The intimate view of humanity juxtaposed with an event that damaged the world on such a global scale shakes you. Most notably, the film affects you differently, depending on your state of mind at the time watching it.
After my first experience, I thought it was about fleeting, intense love. After viewing it again last week, I believe it is also about the mounting anxiety of a man and his crumbling identity as the surrounding world seemingly falls apart. What is this film? Is it the story of the actress or the lover? Is it a romance story set to the background of the atom bomb? Is it poetic ramblings on war & memory? Or is it, as Eric Rohmer deemed it, “an anguish of the future”? Seventy-five years later, Elle’s answer of amazement, indifference, and fear to her lover Lui’s question about the meaning of the atomic bomb screams in our conscience: “The end of the war… completely, I mean. Amazement that they dared, amazement that they succeeded. And for us, the start of an unknown fear. Then, indifference. And the fear of indifference.”
“War Games” (1983)
Some film lines are so iconic that they’re quoted long after the movie’s release and the words affect generations to come. “Shall we play a game?” of John Badham’s “War Games” is etched in the memory of every nerdy kid. It unleashes a wild story. In this 1983 science fiction film, teenager David Lightman (Matthew Broderick), filled with an innocence and eagerness to impress a girl, accidentally unleashes thermonuclear war and incites WWIII.
“War Games” has made a pivotal impact on many, from Google’s Sergey Brin to president Ronald Reagan. The film introduced the idea of hacking to Reagan, influencing him to have the Department of Defense prioritize cybersecurity. In the present, video games like the one Broderick’s character played in the film are how the general public experiences nuclear weapons. In these games, nuclear weapons save the day. You’re always strategizing with how many you have and when you’ll use them. But in reality, nuclear weapons do not save the day. While they used to serve as a deterrent to keep the peace, they now actually endanger our security rather than secure it. In a recent interview with former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry, who has had decades of experience and special access to top-secret knowledge of strategic nuclear options, Perry stated, “these are not military weapons; they are political weapons.” And, as Broderick’s character eventually learned, “the only winning move is not to play.”
I remember the first time watching Bruce Conner’s masterpiece “Crossroads,” thinking how simple yet brilliant it was. Conner trusted in the simplicity of the bomb. He didn’t need to do much to show the sublime and chilling nature of these apocalyptic nightmares. The film depicts tests involving the detonation of a weapon with a yield equivalent to 23 million tons of TNT — the same strength as the atom bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki. It was such a surreal sight to see how these explosions disturb everything around it that I often found myself wondering, “is this even real?” I keep an ongoing list of government test and operation names, and this one is one of my favorites.
The film is titled after the infamous government nuclear weapon testing operation Operation Crossroads, which took place in the Bikini Atoll islands in 1946. There is certainly an art to naming these government operations and tests; I always found them poetic in a military sort of way. Using an electric organ and a Moog synthesizer, Terry Riley and synth pioneer Patrick Gleeson created an eerie and stunning score. The most chilling moments, though, are when the music cuts out to reveal the sound of the actual explosions — at times on a several-second delay — to reflect how light travels faster than sound. At the time, nearly half the world’s supply of film was at Bikini Atoll for the tests, making these explosions the most thoroughly photographed moments in history. I applaud the incredible restoration team, as restoring and preserving the US Atomic and Nuclear test footage is an art form in itself. Head over to Atom Central for more, and get ready to spend an hour or four mesmerized by their work.
“WHITE LIGHT, BLACK RAIN” (2007)
It may have been 75 years ago, but the memory remains painfully fresh to the surviving victims of the atomic bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The survivors, known as “hibakusha,” suffer from the effects of radiation poisoning, loss of family and friends, and discrimination. Survivors’ stories are the wrenching focal point of the HBO documentary “White Light, Black Rain” as they recount the memories of the blasts, as well as the physical and mental toll of the horrors of that time. Steven Okazaki’s film is a chronicle of life amidst the wreckage; it is raw, straightforward, and plain. It lets the stories speak for themselves, and brings to mind the writing of John Hersey’s seminal book, “Hiroshima.” With the constant threat of nuclear weapons in our headlines, we cannot afford to forget what happened on those pivotal days in 1945. As one of the survivors states, “All this pain we carry in our hearts and in our bodies — it must end with us.”