For years, Oliver Stone was one of cinema’s most dynamic stylists, a director so visually pugnacious that he made Kevin Costner repeating “Back and to the left” in a cornball Louisiana accent something aesthetically gripping.
It’s head-scratching to now watch Stone’s new documentary Nuclear and ponder how he has somehow made a film about the end of the world that’s so drab it makes An Inconvenient Truth look like an artistic phantasmagoria.
The Bottom Line
Not da bomb.
That I probably agree with most of Stone’s points about the need to destigmatize nuclear power isn’t exactly secondary; most people’s responses to documentaries have absolutely nothing to do with filmmaking and absolutely everything to do with whether or not they endorse the ideology or thesis espoused. So if Nuclear galvanizes a handful of people and even convinces a few more around nuclear power issues, good for Stone. But the movie itself is barely a filmed TED Talk.
Stone’s thesis in Nuclear is that nuclear power has gotten a bad rep. It is, he tells us, relatively cheap, relatively efficient, wildly environmentally friendly and far less dangerous than you might think. Why, then, with the world ever at a climate change tipping point and the quest for renewable energy sources looking far afield, are countries moving away from nuclear power, rather than warmly embracing it like an adorably mutated three-eyed fish? Oil companies and outdated paranoia stemming from the Cold War, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima.
This, incidentally, is all covered in the first 10 minutes of Nuclear, as Stone sets the playing field with a droning voiceover overwritten with Joshua S. Goldstein, whose A Bright Future is the film’s primary source. The introduction to this not-even-really-glorified visual essay covers almost everything you need to know and almost everything the documentary will ever tell you. I kept waiting for Stone to step back and make what would be a more conventional but less anemic documentary with actual experts who aren’t Oliver Stone and with literally any attempted artistic flair to elevate things beyond lots and lots of clips and several dull charts.
Mostly, that never occurs.
Yes, Stone opens things up for a few experts, but they feel wholly arbitrarily chosen. There’s a TikTok nuclear power influencer — yes, that’s a thing — and a former naval commander who runs a blog, plus Goldstein. Eventually, Stone goes on the road to nuclear facilities in France and Russia, where he makes sure the camera captures him nodding appreciatively even if no real information is conveyed. Other than Dr. Vladimir Asmolov, one of the scientists in charge of the Chernobyl investigation, none of the international experts nor Stone’s conversations with them contribute anything much more cogent than, “Why are other countries doing so much better with this than we are?” Again, this is a fair and valid critique! It’s just crummy cinema.
Asmolov is also present for a much more important critique: He thinks HBO’s Chernobyl was a bad TV show! While intelligent minds can differ, this is just one of several points where Stone’s rhetorical punchiness is more a distraction than a point of illumination.
Is there a way to say “Three Mile Island was scary, but perhaps overblown” without repeating condescendingly that nobody actually died? If so, Stone doesn’t know it. Is there a way to say, “Chernobyl was more a human error than a nuclear power error” without repeating with an implied sneer that no matter how many casualties it caused, it wasn’t as bad as you think it was? Dunno. Stone can’t resist the desire to both-sides his blaming for the political fight against nuclear power in the first place — conservatives are in the pocket of fossil fuel companies and liberals are easily scared hippies — nor to tear solar power and wind power to shreds, just for fun. Honestly, I have no objections to implications that low levels of nuclear radiation never hurt anybody and we should all be noshing on uranium rods like candy canes, but that’s the sort of suggestion — I made up the candy cane part — better delivered by a talking head with a medical degree than in affectless voiceover.
Actually, Stone’s voiceover isn’t affectless. It has the zealotry of a new convert, delivered with the same “I just had this explained to me in a meme!” combination of under-documentation and surety you would expect from somebody arguing the longterm value of an ape NFT — not somebody telling you that if we don’t reduce emissions entirely by 2050 everybody will die.
In maybe the final 20 minutes, Nuclear finds a purpose. Stone talks to a number of intrepid American scientists and innovators who are trying to make inroads with SMRs — small modular reactors — and other evolutions of the technology. This is finally where Stone stops talking and starts listening, trying to illustrate the merits of what he’s being told. These pioneers are young, thoughtful and in desperate need of support from an energy community that needs its mind opened. Even if this segment of the documentary is a 20-minute commercial for both some small enterprises and some of the largest companies in the world, it feels worthy.
My instinct is that this closing section should be the film — 10-minute introduction and context, followed by 90 minutes of arguments looking to the future. My problem with Nuclear is less that it’s propaganda and more that it should have been better propaganda.