Between footage of North Korean military parades, frighteningly beautiful explosions, and powerful images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki burn victims, 'the bomb' reminds us of the very real problems buried beneath our feet.
The fear of nuclear annihilation in 2016 is perfectly rational. There are over 15,000 nuclear weapons scattered around the globe, many of which are controlled by people who might not have their heads screwed on quite right. Earlier this year, North Korea detonated a hydrogen bomb, its fourth nuclear test to date. And just a few days ago, as world leaders met in Washington, DC for a nuclear summit, the Hermit Kingdom fired off a long-range missile that might someday be capable of handing nuclear deliverance to a target thousands of miles away. Iran's nuclear program has plateaued following last year's accord, yet it is a fragile truce, and atomic aspirations rarely die so easily. Elsewhere, extremist groups like ISIS are working diligently to obtain radioactive material for a dirty bomb, a prospect that Obama described last week as "the most immediate and extreme threat to global security." Even in the US, the people tasked with guarding these civilization-erasers don't always inspire confidence. In March, 14 US service members in a unit responsible for maintaining a fleet of 150 Minuteman nuclear missiles were placed under investigation for allegedly doing cocaine and other drugs between shifts. And over the years there have been a number of nuclear mishaps that resulted in lost bombs and near-detonation.
And yet, when was the last time you really worried about "the bomb"? When was the last time you did something about it? Not so long ago, nuclear armament was a mainstream political issue. On June 12, 1982, over one million protesters assembled in Central Park to call for a halt to the nuclear arms race. But anti-nuclear zeal has dimmed somewhat in recent years. Last week, activists held a rally in Washington, DC during the nuclear summit to demand, as one attendee put it, "a world that is free of nuclear weapons." According to WUSA 9, the only channel that appears to have covered the event, there were about 100 protesters.
For the makers of the bomb, (Full disclosure: VICE is a supporting editorial partner of the bomb and Tribeca Film Festival) an immersive film and music project that will premiere as the closing event of this year's Tribeca Film Festival, that's a problem. A collaboration between film directors Smriti Keshari and Kevin Ford, author Eric Schlosser, artist Stanley Donwood and the Kingdom of Ludd and the art and design studio United Visual Artists, the film's goal is to remind us that nuclear weapons still exist, and that they still threaten the survival of our species.
In order to really drive the point home, the 55-minute film will be shown in 360 degrees displayed across eight 30-foot-tall screens in New York's grand Gotham Hall while the indie-rock band The Acid performs a live score turned up to 11. The idea is to fling viewers into an immersive experience of the perils of nuclear warfare.
"There's a lot of high level discussion of this issue, and there's almost no public discussion," explained Schlosser, whose book Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety, about the poor security at US nuclear weapons facilities, served as an inspiration for the project. "The threat remains, but it has been completely forgotten about."
"Because these weapons are buried underground, they're out of sight, they're out of consciousness, we don't think about them," director Smriti Keshari told VICE.
Drawing from over 200 hours of archival footage, the film works through a reverse chronology of nuclear arms development, from stiff North Korean military parades all the way back to cheerful scenes of shirtless sunburnt engineers wiring up the first ever nuclear weapon in New Mexico in July, 1945. The emphasis is on creating a visceral portrait of the issue, rather than providing a methodical analysis, say the film's creators. There is no narrator and no talking heads. Complex formulas and diagrams—taken from a collection of thousands of documents compiled by Schlosser for his book—flitter across the screen. Disembodied voices fade in and out. "We're trying to get people to wake up and trying to get people to feel," says Keshari.
Those who go to watch the bomb hoping for a ton of explosions won't be disappointed. The footage of blasts is, as you can imagine, absolutely top notch.Some of it is so spectacular, so trippy, so ridiculous, I was convinced that it was fake. But it's all real, and it's oddly enjoyable.
"At first, it's adrenalizing. It's like the Fourth of July. It's beautiful," said Keshari.
I only watched the film on a single screen, and I still found it thrilling. I can only imagine that when experienced in 360 degrees in a cavernous room, it's going to be a bit terrifying, too. With views of nuclear annihilation on all sides, viewers will quite literally have no way to escape it. The filmmakers, for their part, believe that bringing back some fear of total nuclear apocalypse might not be such a bad idea. "The reason that we feel fear is to help us survive," said Schlosser. "It's that healthy fear that gets you off your ass and makes you do something."
After the fireworks, the bomb pivots to the rather more grisly reality of nuclear war, with a silent chapter from Hiroshima and Nagasaki that includes powerful video portraits of badly burned victims of the bombing. "We show you the sobering and devastating reality of what it actually looks like," said Keshari. Another particularly dismaying sequence shows scenes from a series of US experiments in which unbearably cute dogs, monkeys, pigs, and doves are put into cages and pens within the blast radius of nuclear tests, like a kind of Noah's Ark of Horrors as part of a number of experiments to study the effect of radiation on flesh and blood.
The score, much of which was written specifically for the project, feels well matched to the subject matter. There is a techno-inflected edginess to some of the early tracks, a nod to man's infatuation with things that go boom. As the film progresses and the imagery piles on, the music becomes more somber and emotive. By the end, it's overwhelmingly affective, almost like a funeral chant for the planet. Even if you came for the fireworks, what will stick with you is a sense of numbing dread. "It won't be for those that are faint of the heart. It is intense," said Keshari. "It's going to be shocking. I think it's going to be really mesmerizing and at times really upsetting. But it's the truth, right?"
Over the course of our conversation, Keshari reminded me several times of one such truth that she finds particularly imperative. Those 15,000 nuclear weapons in the hands of tyrants and drug-addled Minutemen guards would be capable of destroying our planet nine times over, she explained. "Let us face without panic the reality of our times," declares one of the disembodied, unattributed voices in the film. Of course, many viewers' instincts will be to do the exact opposite.
And yet Schlosser and Keshari insist that the point of the bomb isn't just to make us freak out. Despite knowing better than most just how close human civilization is to a nuclear catastrophe, the filmmakers are surprisingly upbeat. "I'm not feeling apocalyptic. I'm not feeling depressed. I don't think we're all doomed," explained Schlosser, who says he has been studying nuclear security for eight years. "But it's essential that people know the threat is out there. And it's essential that they realize there are thousands of these machines hidden away underground, underwater, waiting to be used at a moment's notice, to kill you. That is important knowledge."
To be sure, the film tries to end things on a positive note. But that sweet spot between paralyzing fear and complacent optimism is a small one. Some viewers might be inspired to head out to find the nearest protest; others, I suspect, will return to their lives a little more fearful of an impending nuclear catastrophe. Some might just curl up in a ball and try to forget all about it. Either way, it's impossible to watch the bomb and not come away with some level of heightened awareness of the issue. And that, for the team behind the project, might just be enough. "These political systems and these weapons are surmountable," said Schlosser. "And the first step is to know that they're out there and how they pose a threat to us."