In the town of Richland, Washington, which was founded in 1943 as part of a clandestine government program, there is a street called Proton Lane, the high school football team is called the Bombers, and the school mascot is a mushroom cloud. It’s been decades since the nearby Hanford Nuclear Site was decommissioned, but Richland remains in many ways a corporate town – one explored with candor and penetrating insight in Irene Lusztig’s eloquent documentary.
For more than 40 years, the Hanford site produced weapons-grade plutonium, 14 pounds of which went into “Fat Boy,” the bomb the United States detonated over Nagasaki as the final, deadly attack in World War II. In what might be called a sign of overkill, about 70 tons of plutonium remained in storage at the sprawling plant when it closed. Today, underground tanks filled with more than 50 million liters of radioactive waste are a persistent problem cleanup problem.
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There are many things to be said about Hanford, which claimed 600 square miles of dry shrub-steppe grassland along the Columbia River through eminent domain, driving out townspeople and separating native tribes from their ancestral home. Many of those things have been said over the decades, in revelations and devastating reports. Director-producer-editor Lusztig turned her attention to Richland, which was built to house the families of Hanford employees, and has crafted a quietly moving composite portrait, a kaleidoscopic chronicle of a complicated legacy.
Hanford and his company town were part of the top secret Manhattan Project, which belongs to Christopher Nolan Oppenheimerwhich opens in a few weeks, will explore from the perspective of nuclear program hotshots, leading scientists and political powers-that-be. Rijkland is not concerned with upper management, but with the people who grew up in the idyllic mid-century gloss of bourgeois progress in the city.
Many of their fathers, who held well-paying jobs in “the area,” as the riverside reactor complex was euphemistically called, died young from cancer related to radiation exposure. The health of people living downwind of the facility was also affected. A section of a local cemetery is filled with the graves of babies. Over several slow, unflinching breaths, cinematographer Helki Frantzen fills the frame with a few of the stone markers from the 1940s and 1950s, one after the other, their achingly short epitaphs commemorating lives lasting a few months, days or lasted for hours.
Rather than presenting a factoid chronology, Lusztig, with strong, sharp work by Frantzen, captures Richland’s gestalt by interweaving a powerful selection of new interviews, archive footage, music and song. A key element of the document is poetry from the 2012 book Kudos by Kathleen Flenniken, who grew up in Richland, her father a Hanford chemist. In a comfortable setting, four of her poems are read on screen by Richland residents who share the memories they evoke. In one case, the woman reading “To Carolyn’s Father” is Carolyn herself. “I think I trusted the wrong people,” her loyal Hanford employee father told her before he died at age 59.
The work was so secretive at first that many of those who entered Hanford did not know its exact nature. If they knew about the dangers, it was only fleeting, with implicit promises, that they would be protected in some way. In chilling vintage footage, a worker preparing to enter what is believed to be a riskier section is dressed in protective gear that looks like thick cellophane. The film’s most gruesome images reveal radioactivity experiments on farm animals.
A woman recalls the weekly metal box left on the porch for her father: a urine test kit. It was just part of living in a quiet model city that happened to be on the cutting edge of a superpower’s nuclear arsenal. The human ability to compartmentalize is central Rijkland. It is the ability to focus on the decent living that a job offers, not the life-threatening dangers it poses or the weapons of mass destruction that are its product – to embrace or at least avoid the concept of peace through war. accept. A genius former janitor in Hanford, now a food truck owner, says he sees the bomb that shattered Nagasaki as neither good nor bad, but necessary for the preservation of the United States.
Instead of shutting down after the war, as planned, Hanford dug in and grew as a Cold War mentality gripped the nation. President Kennedy’s visit to Hanford, memorialized in one of Flenniken’s poems and striking archival footage, took place on a sunny September day just weeks before his assassination, marking the groundbreaking construction of the site’s ninth reactor , which would be the last. The first — the world’s first plutonium-producing reactor — is now part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park and offers tours, one of which can be seen in Rijkland.
In the last part, the film moves more directly towards art and the desire for symbolic gestures of reconciliation and acknowledgment of grief. In addition to the poetry, there is the emotional intensity of a choral performance of a work called Nuclear dreams (the libretto is by Nancy Welliver, who spent much of her life at Hanford, with music by Reginald Unterseher). And there’s the ethereal, haunting beauty of a piece by Hiroshima-born visual artist Yukiyo Kawano, a third-generation atomic bomb survivor.
Linda Allen’s 1989 song “Termination Winds”, which is haunted in several ways, is heard twice in the movie, memorably. A man at a restaurant delivers a ready-to-play a cappella version that accentuates his hometown’s love and determination in the face of the undergrowth adversity, and two women, with banjo and guitar on the dusty road at the Hanford Site , imbue the song with the lilting pain of a protest song.
In that diner, in people’s homes, during Atomic Frontier Days parades, and in Richland’s serene riverside park, Lusztig engages in conversation with a wide range of residents. Many express local pride. Only a few speak of loss and pain, including a Wanapum elder. He describes the Army’s promise to his grandfather that they could return to their territory when the United States government finished its project. His extended family gathers in his front yard to talk about their connection to the land. “It’s time for us to go home,” he says. But that house has changed forever.
The Confederate Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation have undertaken a major restoration project, planting native plants in the uncontaminated area around Hanford. It is with this foresight that the documentary begins. However, the core part of the site remains permanently unusable. Like the dark side of the Hanford heritage that many people would rather not get into directly, the radioactive sludge is there, not far below the surface. With curiosity and care, Rijkland looks into the heart of a small town, recognizes the joys and brings to light the pain and loss and broken promises.