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Radio Bikini

It’s always interesting to look back on simpler times, especially as regards technological and scientific breakthroughs. We take so much for granted nowadays (television, the Internet, cars) that it seems almost unfathomable that there could ever be a time when these inventions were just a twinkle in our collective eyes. The first unveiling of these things must have been a heady mixture of terror and wonder: terror at the infinite gaping maw of the unknown, wonder at the infinite possibility of the world around us. If something like television must have initially seemed awe-inspiring, how must the first nuclear weapons have seemed?

Radio Bikini, a 1988 Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary Feature, examines the effects of Operation Crossroads on the Bikini Atoll, including the residual damage caused to both the uprooted indigenous natives and U.S. servicemen and scientists. Operation Crossroads was a series of naval A-bomb tests in 1946, mere months after the first atomic bombs were used to level Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Navy wanted to test the strength of warships against atomic power and chose an idyllic, albeit occupied, series of islands in the Pacific. The U.S. relocated the natives to nearby islands, moved scientists and soldiers in, built a base and began conducting test (both above and below water). As a point of reference, the film follows one particular serviceman, John Smitherman, from his time on the project to the present (1983, at the time). Smitherman died of complications related to radiation exposure shortly after the film was finished, so that probably gives you a pretty good idea of what happened.

You see, like any new technology, folks weren’t quite sure what to make of this newfangled nuclear power. As such, the early days of the tests look more like a beach party: everyone runs around in beach-wear (it is a beautiful tropical island, after all), the guys flirt with the girls and everyone gets plenty of ice cream and beer. Seems great, huh? They also all get an up-close and personal view of the a-tests, which later proves to be less than ideal for those involved. For, as we’ve come to accept as part-and-parcel nowadays, the lingering radioactive effects of nuclear tests could become an even more dire heritage than their fiery destructive capabilities. We didn’t know that in 1946, however, but we’d sure figured that out by the ’80s, when nuclear disarmament became a cause celebre.

Radio Bikini is nothing if not sobering and eye-opening, especially once one gets to the final reveal of Smitherman’s condition (I honestly had no idea what was coming and was suitably shocked by the conclusion). The contrast between the care-free, happy days of the tests versus their future impact is particularly powerful: it’s quite illuminating to hear eye-witnesses complain about how they expected the tests to be more explosive and impressive. It’s quite terrifying to witness observers get drenched with (obviously) radioactive water after one underwater bomb test and stand there laughing, as if they’d just come from an amusement park ride. Our current understanding of the terrible power of nuclear power hangs over every frame of the film like a rag-clad grim reaper, reminding us that the majority of the smiling faces on-screen will meet very unpleasant ends.

The other cost of the tests, of course, and the source of much of the film’s emotional punch, is the plight of the relocated natives. This was, after all, their ancestral home and the U.S. government pretty unceremoniously went in and kicked them out. Not only kicked them out but nuked the place, rendering it completely uninhabitable for generations: talk about crappy neighbors! The film does a good job of showing the conflicting emotions of the villagers (they want to help but are never told enough to be genuinely informed) and the way in which the government effectively shunted them to the side. There’s a truly sad scene where we see the military representatives explaining the relocation to the natives. Since the government is filming the scene (presumably for some sort of publicity back home), they do it several times, leading to no end of confusion for the natives. Being told you’re getting kicked out of your home once is bad enough: being told three times because the sound guy screwed up the previous two takes seems like unconscionable torture, as far as I’m concerned.

At one point, the natives’ chief passionately states that he just wants to be able to return to the home of his ancestors again before he dies. It’s a pain that’s obviously shared by the rest of the natives, especially when one considers the paradise they used to live in. They go from ample fishing and foraging in the land they were raised in to scant pickings on neighboring islands as their former paradise is bombed to bits by nuclear weapons. The injustice is pretty palpable and the complete indifference of the various government and military figures we see certainly doesn’t help matters much.

While Radio Bikini is certainly sad and thought-provoking, it also proves to be quite awe-inspiring, as we get up-close footage of the actual atomic tests. I can honestly say that few things in the universe must be as simultaneously beautiful and horrifying as a nuclear explosion. We get to feel a measure (if only an iota) of the awe that the actual observers must have felt as the inferno torched the surrounding area, sending that iconic mushroom cloud up to the heavens. The underwater explosion, in particular, was chilling, especially when one thinks of the widespread effect on the surrounding seas as the huge shockwave pulses for what seems likes miles in every direction. It looks like the apocalypse and must have felt like it from nearby.

As a documentary, Radio Bikini is pretty good, helped immeasurably by the fascinating story being told. It is an inherently sad film, both for the actual effects on those involved and the idea that the nuclear age marked a clear turning point from the past, a headlong dive into technological and scientific pursuits that would come to characterize the next 70 years of our existence. At the time, we undoubtedly saw a much rosier future, a much more glorious and exciting atomic era of prosperity and invention. I’m not so sure that the dispossessed islanders saw it the same way, however, and I’m pretty sure Smitherman didn’t, either.