When Building Bombs was released in 1991, it was intended as a clarion call for change in the way the United States manages its nuclear weapons building program. Its message was so well received in some corners that despite already being dated and not being particularly well made, it received an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature, losing to the socially-important and well-made American Dream by Barbara Kopple. Revisiting the film in 2008, it appears dated in a way that American Dream does not. Though the environmental problems it identifies are still with us, the nuclear arms industry is much diminished and far more tightly regulated now than it was in the mid-80s for reasons that have little to do with this film.
Building Bombs was the first and last directorial effort for Mark Mori and Susan Robinson. In 1985, Mori set out to make a documentary about anti-nuclear activism, but over the course of five years, a dozen scripts and the enlistment of Robinson, the film was refocused onto the impact of the construction and operation of the nation's preeminent weapons-grade plutonium manufacturing facility on the people and environment of three rural South Carolina counties.
The Savannah River Site (SRS) is a federal facility constructed in 1950 by DuPont to manufacture the bulk of the United States' weapons-grade plutonium. The 310-square-mile facility, five times larger than Washington D.C., lays along the Georgia border in South Carolina. To facilitate its construction, the federal government moved whole towns across three counties, building by building. Once constructed, the facility quadrupled the local population overnight essentially making the whole region one large company town.
So great was the perceived need for churning out a high volume of nuclear warheads to compete with the Soviet Union in the arms race, the SRS was exempted from all environmental laws until the late 1980s. During almost four decades of exemption, the nuclear power plants operated without containment domes, low-grade solid nuclear waste was placed in cardboard boxes and shallowly buried, liquid wastes were deposited in open pits at a rate of 200,000 gallons a day, and the most deadly radioactive material was stored in poorly-designed concrete bunkers.
The reactors experienced occasional radioactive releases, the ground subsided where the cardboard boxes of radioactive waste were deposited, wildlife was poisoned by the open pools of radioactive liquids and carried contamination outside the facility, and the concrete bunkers seeped highly-lethal radioactive materials into the ground threatening an aquifer that supplies drinking water to four states.
Building Bombs documents the environmental harms through footage of the facilities and waste disposal methods, and through interviews. Pro-business-as-usual Department of Energy (DOE) officials and industry representatives are offset with interviews with two former scientists, one from DOE and one from DuPont, recounting their knowledge of the environmental harms associated with the plant and recounting efforts by government and industry to kill all reports that would expose the extent of the harms being done.
World politics and the management of the SRS both changed dramatically during the five years that Building Bombs was being filmed. America "won" the Cold War, and the SRS was brought under environmental regulation and Westinghouse took over management of the facility. Though construction of nuclear warheads had not yet ceased, the writing was on the wall. These facts are downplayed in the documentary, presumably to avoid having the viewer question how much of the footage of bad waste disposal practices and interviews were already dated.
Building Bombs was shot on low-quality 16mm film stock which has not aged well. The colors in the 1.33:1 image are faded, and there's plenty of scratches and dirt as well. Building Bombs looks right at home in terms of picture quality among the 60's industrial films included in the extras.
The audio track provides identical signals to the left and right front speakers. The quality of the audio is adequate to understand the narrator (Jane Alexander) and interviewees, though audio dropouts and distortion are apparent at times.
The extras are significantly longer than the 54-minute run time of the feature documentary. These include recent interviews with filmmakers Mark Mori (12 min.) and Susan Robinson (11 min.), archival government films about atomic energy (63 min.), a public access segment from 1993 about PBS censorship of Building Bombs, and an 18-second introduction to the documentary by REM lead singer Michael Stipe prepared for television broadcast.
Unfortunately, the extras feel mostly like padding. The archival films are the kind of industrial films that populate archive.org, the public access coverage of a controversy regarding whether PBS would broadcast Building Bombs is a long forgotten and poorly presented tempest in a teapot, and the 18-second Stipe introduction for the film is a joke of an extra (he asks viewers to stick around after the presentation for an important update, but said update isn't included on this disc). The interviews with the filmmakers are okay as far as they go, but they don't substitute for an in-depth look at the SRS since the film was made, which this DVD sorely needs.
Building Bombs was already dated when it was released in 1991. During the making of the film, the Cold War ended, and the management of the Savannah River Site was completely revamped. Rather than go back and refocus the film on the environmental harms that would linger on, filmmakers Mark Mori and Susan Robinson underplayed the dramatic changes and plunged ahead full speed in a race against changing circumstances.
Where American Dream remains as powerful today as it was in 1991, Building Bombs does not. This DVD might still be worth a look if it had included a well-made update on the SRS since the film was released, but no such effort was made. Until such a follow-up documentary is made, there's really no reason to see Building Bombs.