Docurama // 1987 // 56 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron (Retired) // January 10th, 2004
"Melt the guns, melt the guns, melt the guns and never more desire
-- Andy Partridge, XTC
It is 1946. Japan has finally surrendered and World War II is over. The use of the atomic bomb at both Hiroshima and Nagasaki is still a sore spot for most of the industrialized world, so America decides to hold tests of their nuclear technology, in full view of the rest of the globe, to prove their mastery of the atom. The Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands is picked as the location for two tests: an airburst bomb and an underwater explosion. Hundreds of military men, scientists, soldiers, and journalists travel to the remote paradise to witness the destructive power of nuclear energy. Yes, there are protests, even among some members of the United Nations, but in the end, the US prevails and the tests are prepared. There are two big obstacles, however. There are the Bikini Islanders, a gentle people who consider the tiny isle their home. With a little good old American hucksterism, they are relocated to neighboring areas. Then there is the issue of recording the tests. Again, the US military rises to the challenge and collects 750 cameras, half the world's supply of film, and several hundred soldiers to act as "location managers." As the testing begins and the bombs burst above and below, the soldiers sit back and assess the damage -- even as the fallout settles all around them. What happens next is yet another chapter in the imperfect history of American versus radiation. It is part of our atomic legacy. This is Radio Bikini.
There's a moment in Radio Bikini that is so devastating, so comprehensive and compelling to the story we have just witnessed that to try and describe its impact would be to waste words. It exists on a wholly personal level and stems directly from the incredibly detailed and misguided military footage we've seen of the atomic bomb tests over the Bikini Islands. And yet when it comes, when the camera pulls back to reveal a secret kept hidden from us, the audience, for the last fifty minutes, the power of the image acts like an one of those ancient airburst fusion reaction, immediately catching our breath and drawing out our very essence. And as the situation sinks in, as we measure the truth against what we've been fed through the government propaganda machine (both in the film and elsewhere) over the last five decades, emotions begin to mingle and confuse us. There is pity for the portrait offered, anger at the undeniable hubris that brought about such preventable circumstances, and fear. Fear that we've been led down a path toward mutually assured destruction and anti-proliferation treaties for all the wrong reasons. Fear that other nations have "gone nuclear" in a mad attempt to prevent America from flexing its A-bomb biceps too often. And fear that the entire arms race that the world has been involved in for the last fifty years could have possible been avoided had the twin tests along the Bikini Atoll been handled in a completely different manner.
Prior to its reveal, Radio Bikini is one of those clever documentary conceits that means to tell its tale almost exclusively through the footage and voices of those involved in the incident as it happened. There are only two staged interviews in the entire film; the rest of the imagery and narrative comes directly from military and newspaper archives, voices and scenes combined and compiled out of existing material to make it the event, and not the filmmaker, telling the story. In actuality, Radio Bikini is a version of a US government "informational" film that, for some reason, never got made. Arguments can be made that the way in which America handled the Bikini Island testing, from the mistreatment and relocation of the native population of the region to the chest pounding self-righteous rejection of other countries' concerns doomed such a project from the start. But something more sinister was at work. It's obvious that, once the mushroom clouds cleared and cooler heads prevailed, the abject stupidity of what had happened, the happenstance manner is which life and limb was jeopardized for the sake of half-baked half truths and a sense of sovereign superiority was present from frame one. Best to cover up the blunders and site national security. Unless someone uncovered the sad, sorry truth about what really happened during those now meaningless tests, the military industrial complex could simply sit back and celebrate the successful ducking of a pretty significant, irradiated bullet.
It is, thankfully, through the work of filmmaker Robert Stone that we can finally see the Bikini island tests for what they really were. Radio Bikini makes the point clearly and often that America was scared after World War II: afraid that its power could be instantly usurped once another nation got the bomb and used it; afraid that Nagasaki and Hiroshima was not enough to dissuade enemies. And mostly afraid that, in a couple of devastating demonstrations of mankind's manipulation of the atom, the age old ways of making war and defending one's nation had become obsolete. So the Bikini tests were meant to prove that soldier and earth scorcher could co-exist, that even after immense explosions of heat, force, and radiation, with metal twisted and test animals obliterated, human beings could enter Ground Zero and casually assess the damage (and by extrapolation, continue fighting the rest of the war). Unfortunately, the thickheaded naïveté of such a supposition resulted in hundreds of lives being lost or forever changed (even at the biological level) as direct contact with radioactive water and material meant a quicker death for those unfortunate fellows following orders. Radio Bikini is a eulogy for everyone and everything that was lost during those dark days of 1946. The world has never really fully recuperated.
As they do with the majority of their releases, Docurama expands on the presentation of the documentary proper with some very nice extras. In this case, we get a 45-minute interview with director Robert Stone on the Canadian media discussion program On Camera. Dealing not only with Radio Bikini, but two later works by the filmmaker (The Satellite Sky, about the space race and Farewell Good Brothers, about the earliest days of the UFO craze) it is an in-depth discussion of this enigmatic moviemaker (he has a very impish, sly sense of irony) and the way in which he approaches his subject. Occasionally, the female host blocks any important artistic revelations (she's one of these questioners who can't quite seem to get the inquiry out without a lot of excess verbiage and explanation), but the feature still gives us a chance to hear Stone's story and sense of Radio Bikini's importance. Along with an onscreen biographical essay on the documentarian and a collection of trailers for other Docurama titles (offered in their unique "catalog" style), the bonus content here is minimal but well meaning.
Visually, Radio Bikini looks like it was made in the late 1980s. The print has not aged well and the transfer is not color corrected or cleaned up. There is a great deal of stock footage here, some of it suffering from how it was made initially, but none of this is really Stone or the film's fault. Just accept the fact that Radio Bikini will look rather dull and lifeless at times and offers occasional flaws in the original 1940s filmmaking and you'll have no other issue with the 1.33:1 full screen image. Sonically, this is a flat, near mono mix being pumped into Dolby Digital Stereo for no real reason. Such duo channel technology did not exist in the time of radio and location moviemaking (not even for the rich and powerful US government), so everything resonates like a long lost wireless broadcast from another world (the moving and evocative synthesizer score that accompanies some of the footage is given a good home here and it is wonderful).
Though it may appear to be a one trick movie, Radio Bikini has a lot more to say about America and its nuclear policy than a simple if shocking late story reveal. But that moment will haunt you, just like the Cold War haunted this nation, for years to come. Radio Bikini reminds us that as long as there are atomic weapons around the world, what happened in that out of the way Atoll is just another dumb decision, probably destined to be repeated.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 56 Minutes
Release Year: 1987
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* 45-Minute Interview with Filmmaker Robert Stone
* Filmmaker Biography and Statement
* Docurama Catalog