Robert Stone's Radio Bikini (1987) is one of the most powerful testaments to the awesome power of the atomic bomb. The film does not glorify the bomb's destructive power; rather, it presents the infamous tests of the bomb on the Bikini Atoll in 1946 from a different point of view. The only real credited 'stars' of the modern footage are two men: Kilon Bauno and John Smitherman. Both were victims of these tests, but in completely different ways.
First, the tests themselves: The year was 1946, and America was in good spirits as World War II ended (after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima). The U.S. was proud of its achievement...even president Harry Truman thanked God for giving them the atomic bomb, and prayed that they would use it to do His will (don't even get me started on that statement). Obviously, they were looking to continue their use of this new technology, but needed to test it further before making any big decisions, like dropping it in the middle of another city. A test area was needed, and was soon found in the Bikini Atoll, a small area in the Central Pacific Ocean (part of the Republic of the Marshall Islands). The inhabitants were forced to leave, and their homes were burned as the areas were cleared out for the testing.
Kilon Bauno was the chief of the people there, and recounts his memories in the modern footage. His emotions for the events that happened years ago were stronger than ever: he seemed confused as to why his home was destroyed for a bomb test, and angry that he was forced to leave in the first place. When placed in the same position, I'm sure anyone else would react in the same way, if not more aggressively. He represents a victim in every sense of the word: a person disregarded by the majority vote, who never had a say in the matter. Equally shocking is the original portrayal of the native people themselves: they are treated as children seemingly oblivious to the world around them.
It gets uglier, though...most animal lovers will cringe when they see their treatment by the military during this incident. In an early scene, sheep and goats are basically tied down, shorn, and covered in "Flash Cream", which was most likely a test product that might have been used on humans later. These animals were placed in realitrvely close proximity to the blast area, and then studied after the bombs went off. In most cases, the results were as sickening as you'd expect (needless to say, there's a few graphic images here). Imagine the outcry from animal rights activists if these actions were performed today (especially those lunatics over at PETA)! Amazingly, in one scene a goat is still alive, munching happily on some nearby straw...although there are several radiation burns and blisters on its body. However, the physical injuries and deaths weren't limited to animals, as several personnel experenced radiation poisoning well after the tests were completed.
Meet John Smitherman, one of the men on duty during the tests. After a series of brief close-ups with this man, the camera suddenly pans back to reveal the extent of his physical condition. Notice the swelling on his left hand? That's from the radiation, but both his legs had already been amputated by then. Through an enormous amount of restraint, he gives a detailed account of his degrading condition from then until now. Tragically, John Smitherman died from complications related to this radiation poisoning shortly after the film was completed, but his testimony serves as a grave reminder as to the power of atomic technology. Land was destroyed, animals and people were injured and killed, and there was untold pollution to the surrounding areas. But the military didn't ease up...there were other tests conducted in the same area, including the infamous Bravo Test (which involved a 15-megaton Hydrogen Bomb) that took place only 8 years later.
Here's the bottom line: Radio Bikini is absolutely required viewing for any American citizen. It flawlessly portrays the ignorance and stupidity of the military for ever conducting these tests, and it's about time more people learned the truth. Be warned, it may make you angry...this is a very thought-provoking work, and (in my opinion) is on par with such tragic documentaries as Night and Fog. Even at a slim 56 minutes, there's a lot here to take in, and may be tough to watch in several places. Trust me, though: this is a very important film, and a strong argument against "weapons of mass destruction". This release is brought to us by Docurama, a company dedicated to the art of 100% non-fiction work. The DVD itself is the perfect companion to the movie: it's relatively slim, but very informatvie and to the point. Let's see how it stacks up:
Quality Control Department
As you can imagine for a feature that uses footage from 1946, the majority of the video here is in pretty rough shape. There's a good deal of dirt, scratches, and other debris which mar the black and white images, but most viewers won't mind...this is the standard for most footage of that time period. Newer footage (presumably shot in the early to mid-1980s) is a little muddy, washed out, and soft; but these problems don't seem so bad when compared to the older footage. Overall, this wasn't a bad job by any means (due to the condition and age of the source material), so don't let the video quality keep you from seeing this documentary. By the way, this film (and the bonus features) are presented in their original aspect ratio of 1.33:1, for those who are interested.
The audio is about the same quality as the video...not bad for the newer footage, but a little rough elsewhere. Again, this is the source material, so I can't be too critical. I had no problem understanding the dialogue onscreen, so the audio experience is actually much better than you might expect. This film is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, and won't likely sound any better than it does here.
Menu design and presentation:
The menus are standard for Docurama...a little logo-heavy and self-promoting, but nicely done. The navigation is smooth and easy, and the sub-menus are also simple and well laid out. Packaging is also similar to the menus, in that it's pretty straightforward but may catch a few eyes on the shelf. No insert is included, just an advertisement for more Docurama releases. While a slightly more creative presentation might have been interesting, what we get does the job just fine.
The extras are a little thin, but more substantial than the packaging might have you believe. First up is a Filmmaker Interview with Robert Stone. I was expecting a boring text interview, but this is actually a 45-minute program which goes into great detail about Stone's first steps as a filmmaker and how this affected his career. It's a great extra, and much better than I originally expected. Next up is a Filmmaker Biography (although the packaging refers to it as a "Statement"), which is a simply a text biography of Stone. It's also a nice read, but I generally don't like reading text on a TV screen...I'd have preferred a nice insert booklet instead. That ends the film-specific extras, but there's a few other things included...the Docurama Catalogue lists no less than 51 other titles from their DVD library (with a bit of information on each one), and 8 of these include trailers for the featured films. Boy, if they keep this up, they'll need a second DVD devoted to the catalogue in a year or two! Last but not least is About Docurama, a text commercial for the company. Once again, a little thin on the whole, but the interview is most welcome and a valuable inclusion.
Should anything else have been included?
While this film runs just 56 minutes, it had to have generated some heat and controversy. I'd have liked to see some reactions from the public, even more so than Stone alludes to in the interview. Also, I'm not sure if this film had a trailer or not, but that would have also been neat to see. While a commentary may have also been interesting, the interview isn't a bad substitute in the least. Still, this was obviously a labor of love by Robert Stone (heck, the guy did practically everything himself), so maybe a bit more participation by him could have been added. Other than that, the film itself speaks volumes, and is obviously the star of the show...there's not much else you could ask for, really.
Needless to say, Radio Bikini comes Highly Recommended...while a lower retail price might make this easier for some buyers, it's well worth the money. The film itself is essential viewing, and the short but excellent extras are good compliments to the main feature. While the techinal aspects of this disc are a little lackluster, you can't really expect much from a film that is heavy on stock footage that's nearly 60 years old. Overall, Docurama's slim but satisfying package comes Highly Recommended.
Plan Next Year's Vacation
The Bikini Atoll Website (it's safe now!)
Randy Miller III is a part-time cartooning instructor based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in an art gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.