Judge Adam Arseneau is a Pu-head.
His family's future depends on one unstable element.
"Pu? What's Pu?"
A darkly comedic and distressing drama, Pu-239, a.k.a. The Half Life of Timofey Berezin, is a moral quagmire of social commentary, happenstance tragedy, and weapons-grade plutonium run wild through post-Soviet Russia. The newest production from Section Eight, George Clooney's and Steven Soderbergh's production house, this one never made it to theaters, which is a shame. This one is radioactive—err, in a good way.
Facts of the Case
The year is 1995. Timofey (Paddy Constantine, Dead Man's Shoes) is a government worker in a nuclear material processing plant Russia who has the misfortune of being in a work-related accident. Exposed to a dangerous dose of radiation, the government immediately sends him home without pay, much to the concern of his wife and child. Unfortunately for Timofey, his government has been less than forthcoming. In an attempt to cover up the incident and the secretive nature of the facility to the international community, his employers grossly underplay the severity of the exposure. In actuality, Timofey has been exposed to a lethal dose of radiation, and has only a few days to live before his body falls apart from the damage.
Desperate to provide security for his family in hard-times Russia, with only a few days of life left, desperation drives his action. He goes back to the facility, leaving with a sizable portion of weapons-grade plutonium and traveling to Moscow, where he hopes to sell his acquisition on the black market for cash. Wandering the streets, without any idea who to talk to or what to do next, he happens an encounter with Shiv (Oscar Isaac, The Nativity Story), a hapless mobster who needs to come up with some money in a hurry; together the two plan how to sell one of the most dangerous substances on the planet to any willing buyer…
A film with whiffs of global destruction on the wind, Pu-239 is set to the ticking pace of the doomsday clock. It's a thoroughly improbable sequences of events played out in a black comedic sequence of events that would make Larry, Moe, and Curly blush with envy—or, at the very least, radioactive exposure. In any other place in the world, the idea of this film would be utterly laughable—a hapless worker smuggling out gigantic quantities of plutonium to the streets of a major metropolis—but in post-Soviet Moscow, one has to wonder.
With no government to fund efforts and upgrades, the dilapidated state of nuclear facilities, mismanaged and poorly maintained after the fall of the government left them in frightening states, both in safety measures and government accountability. Say what you want about the film being fiction—if one believes the critics, this kind of thing has happened before, and will probably happen again. Scary stuff indeed. These real-life implications to the narrative give the film a frightening level of urgency, a panic and immediacy that demands the attention of viewers in this modern era of global fear. Simply put, post-Soviet Russia (circa 1995) was a pretty messed-up place. After the government fell and the currency crumbled, Russia got awfully surreal, full of nihilism, insurrection, and capitalism run wild at the hands of organized crime. If anyone was going to walk around a city with a homemade canister of weapons-grade plutonium strapped to their chest with a cardboard sign saying "Pu-239," it would be in Moscow.
Though it may seem like a contradiction, Pu-239 is capitalism by way of communism. The notion that a man can provide for his family by stealing fuel for nuclear bombs and selling it to a local gangster who has no idea what to do with it, not out of a desire to do misdeed or to cause global harm, but out of sheer desperation and necessity to survive, is just too delicious for words. The Greeks may have pioneered the epic tragedy, but the Russians live it. The tragedy in Pu-239 comes not only from the unfortunate sequence of events surrounding Timofey, but also of the local world in which he resides—a world full of worthless currency hoarded by families that cannot buy even the most meager of food after the government collapse, of mobsters taking over the services once controlled by the government, of women turning to prostitution in the hopes of snagging a wealthy American to rescue them from their homeland and take them away. The other bumbler, Shiv, is in the same boat as Timofey despite the lack of lethal exposure. He also lives a life of necessity, working the streets for powerful mob bosses to provide for his child and estranged woman, all whom of which are looking for an escape from Russia. The two protagonists meander about like some weird nuclear version of the guys from Midnight Cowboy, with destruction and tragedy nipping at their heels all the while—not out of choice, but simply because there is no other alternative. Issues of morality simply never come up in the equation here. Viewers find themselves in the unlikely position of rooting for these two hapless characters, totally out of their element, trying to sell nuclear material that could kill us all. Only a well-written film can pull that kind of trick off.
From start to finish, Pu-239 is an elegantly crafted film, a credit to first-time director Scott Burns. Its two distinct narratives following Timofey and Shiv as they wind their way into each other's lives, united by a need to sell some plutonium, balancing between surreal black comedy and downright unsettling imagery in equal amounts. The normally intense Constantine turns out a surprisingly reserved performance here as the affected Timofey, displaying none of the normal rage that guides his other roles. The surprising star comes in the form of Shiv, played by Oscar Isaac, who mixes tough-guy attitude, compassion, and humor in equal amounts. An argument can be made that his character is as equally tragic as Timofey, despite not having the lethal dose of radiation.
Shot mostly on location in Romania (standing in for Russia), Pu-239 has stunning cinematography that captures the austere beauty and desolate abandonment that permeates most of this corner of the world. The transfer is grim and bleak, matching the subject matter, with vivid reds and greens during certain sequences and a mute, slate-tinted color palate of blues and grays at others. Black levels are deep but show some grain here and there, but the transfer is surprisingly clean and detailed overall. A Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track accentuates the moving string score, with clear center-driven dialogue and surprisingly aggressive bass response. The rear channels are lightly used, but in all other ways, an excellent technical performance. A stereo Spanish dub is also included.
The only extra feature included on this disc is a full-length commentary track with writer/director Scott Burns and executive producer Peter Berg. The two banter and ramble enjoyably, and get delightfully off-topic, one pretending he hasn't seen the film and asking the other leading questions. Still, they provide much detail into the shoot and behind-the-scenes details.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As powerful a film as Pu-239 is, its spiraling narrative into the seedy gangland underbelly of Russia gets to be something of a comedy of errors, like something off the desk of Guy Ritchie. Shiv has no idea how to sell something like this on the black market, and his stumbling attempts lead to more hilarity than anything else, playing mob boss against mob boss and getting into all kinds of mayhem. Oh, all quite hilarious in a surreal sort of way, but it feels…weird.
The darkly comedic moments in this film are confusing. Funny, sure, and twisted and utterly surreal in their hilarity, but one cannot help feel at times they are misplaced. This is a dramatic film about the destruction of a family due to nuclear material, after all…how much should we be laughing here?
But boy howdy, what an outrageous ending. Worth a viewing just for it. You'll never guess in a hundred years where the plutonium ends up.
A fantastic, outrageous, and heart-wrenching tale of moral ambiguity and desperation, Pu-239 is a surprise hit. A magnificent drama full of introspection, destruction, gangland comedy, and nuclear material—everything you could ever want from a film! HBO has a fantastic track record with its cinematic productions, putting serious talent, budget, and consideration into their development, and here is no exception. Would Steve and George steer you wrong?
Not guilty by way of lethal exposure of awesome.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with writer/director Scott Burns and executive producer Peter Berg
Review content copyright © 2008 Adam Arseneau; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.