on August 12, 2012
In the summer of 2010 I taught a course on national security policy regarding weapons of mass destruction, with a particular emphasis on nuclear weapons. While doing research in preparation for the course, I was delighted to discover that a new documentary film had just been made about nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament; and I thought it might be something that my students would benefit from watching. Unfortunately, I also discovered that it was not yet available on video, that it would not be released in theaters until about a week after I gave the final exam for the course, and that it was only getting a limited theatrical release, and would not be shown anywhere within at least a hundred miles of our campus. So that pretty much dashed my hopes of having my students see the film in conjunction with the WMD course. But eventually the documentary did come out on DVD; and I finally got to see it. I'm not sure that my students missed out on much by not seeing the film, since it didn't really cover anything that we hadn't already covered in more detail in class. But it still would have been nice if my students had gotten a chance to watch it, if for no other reason than to reinforce some of the things they learned in the course. If I ever teach the WMD course again, I don't think I would actually show this documentary in class; but I might encourage my students to watch it on their own. And I would also recommend it to anyone who wants to learn about nukes, but who doesn't have the opportunity to take a college course on the subject. It's not a perfect film; but it does do a fairly decent job of presenting the basics of what every citizen needs to know about nuclear weapons.
I enjoyed watching this film. It was well made. I especially liked the fact that it featured interviews with a number of experts on nuclear weapons issues, including Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, Tony Blair, Pervez Musharraf, F.W. de Klerk, Robert S. McNamara (interviewed shortly before his death), Zbigniew Brzezinski, James Baker, Valerie Plame Wilson, Graham Allison, and Joseph Cirincione, among others. I thought the film did a pretty good job of explaining certain things that are not really all that well understood by the general public, but that everyone needs to be aware of, such as how easy it would be to build a Hiroshima-type bomb if you could get your hands on enough highly enriched uranium (HEU), how easy it is to smuggle nuclear materials (and how hard it is to detect them), and how close we've come in the past to nuclear catastrophe due to accidents and misunderstandings. If you don't really know all that much about nuclear weapons -- and, let's face it, most people don't -- then you will definitely learn something by watching this documentary. So I would encourage you to do so. But I do want to caution you to please be aware that watching this film will not make you an expert on the subject; and it might even leave you with the wrong impression about a few things.
Like most contemporary documentary films made for theatrical release, this is really not the sort of dry, fact-filled "educational video" you used to watch back in school on those days when the teacher was too lazy to lecture. No, this is a modern piece of filmmaking, designed to appeal to today's moviegoer -- someone with too short of an attention span to sit through an hour-and-a-half lecture on nuclear proliferation -- and thus tries to keep the audience entertained with lots of cool visual images, a rocking soundtrack, and the use of lots of short segments edited together in quick succession so that the audience never has a chance to get bored with any single topic, visual image, or interviewee. Of course, there's nothing wrong with a filmmaker trying to make a documentary that is entertaining as well as informative -- the best documentary filmmakers (e.g. Ken Burns, Errol Morris, Adam Curtis) always manage to do both -- but sometimes, when watching a documentary like this one, you can't help but get the feeling that the director was more concerned with style than with substance. Now, while I wouldn't go so far as to call this documentary shallow or superficial, I would say that it's not quite as in-depth or as nuanced in its presentation of the facts as it could have been. It glosses over certain things in a way that might leave a misleading impression on the uninformed viewer. For example, it completely fails to discuss the fundamental differences between fission and fusion weapons (i.e. between "A-bombs" like those dropped on Japan at the end of World War II, and the much more powerful "H-bombs" that threatened to destroy modern civilization during the Cold War), or between "gun-type" and "implosion" A-bombs (i.e. between Hiroshima-type bombs and Nagasaki-type bombs), or between highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium. Understanding these differences is essential to being able to properly evaluate the true nature and scope of the threat posed by nuclear proliferation. The film also neglects to properly qualify some of its statements, which may cause some viewers to get the wrong idea about certain things. For example, it mentions that Israel has nuclear weapons, but fails to note that Israel refuses to acknowledge the existence of its nuclear arsenal, and that much of what is publicly "known" about Israel's nuclear capabilities is based on educated guesswork. The film also mentions that North Korea has conducted nuclear tests; but it fails to note that many experts believe that at least one, and perhaps both, of its two tests "fizzled" (i.e. the nuclear material failed to detonate properly, resulting in a much smaller explosion than the bomb was designed to produce). It claims that Iran is enriching uranium in an effort to develop nuclear weapons, but neglects to mention that there is still considerable debate within the intelligence and nonproliferation communities about Iran's true intentions. It notes that North Korea, Pakistan, and Iran have developed missiles that are (theoretically) capable of carrying nuclear warheads; but it fails to point out that these are all short- and medium-range missiles (with a maximum effective range of less than 1,000 miles), and that North Korea and Iran have been trying for decades to develop longer-range missiles, but have had very little success thus far. I was also a bit disappointed that the film fails to include a discussion of nuclear deterrence, apart from making the highly debatable assertion that deterrence is no longer relevant, and nuclear weapons no longer have a legitimate role to play in safeguarding our national security, in the post-Cold War era.
I guess most of my complaints about this documentary really boil down to the fact that this film clearly has an agenda: It was made in order to promote nonproliferation and nuclear disarmament. The people behind this film are completely open and honest about this agenda. They're not simply trying to educate people about nuclear weapons; they're trying to encourage people to step up and demand that their political leaders take action to halt the spread of nuclear weapons, and to negotiate reductions in the world's nuclear stockpiles. I can certainly sympathize with this agenda, at least up to a point -- I strongly support arms control and nonproliferation efforts designed to reduce the risk of nuclear war and nuclear terrorism; but I don't think it would be practical to completely eliminate nuclear weapons anytime in the foreseeable future. However, I really don't like the idea of agenda-driven documentaries, because they almost always paint a somewhat distorted portrait of the subject, whether the filmmaker intends to do so or not. An agenda-driven film will inevitably reflect the implicit assumptions, presuppositions, and biases of the filmmaker, no matter how objective he or she tries to be. Here, the filmmaker decided to gloss over certain nuances and caveats that I believe ought to have been discussed. Why did she do this? I can't say for certain; but I have to assume that she didn't consider them relevant to the point the film was trying to make. And that, in my view, was the problem: This film was trying to make a point about the dangers of nuclear weapons and the need to get rid of them; so it just didn't bother discussing anything that wouldn't help make this point. I really don't think the filmmaker was deliberately trying to mislead anyone. But it is possible to leave a misleading impression without ever intending to do so, simply by leaving out information that doesn't quite fit into your chosen narrative.
But I don't want to be too harsh in my criticism. This was not a bad film -- not by a long shot. I really enjoyed watching it. I think many people would benefit from watching it. If you don't already know much about nuclear weapons, you'll learn a lot from it. Just be aware that it doesn't present the whole story. If you want to learn about nuclear weapons and nuclear proliferation, this documentary is a good place to begin. But it's not a good place to end. Should you watch this film? Yes, definitely. But you should also seek out additional information on the subject to make up for what this documentary leaves out.
As for the DVD release, it contains the movie, which runs for about an hour-and-a-half, along with a number of special features, including deleted scenes, extended interviews, three old documentary shorts from the 1950s about nuclear weapons, and a PSA for the Ploughshares Fund -- an organization headed by Joseph Cirincione which promotes nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament. I thought that these special features were a valuable addition to the film.
Bottom line: I would recommend this film; but it's a qualified recommendation.