The development of radiation-creating weapons became a turning point in World War II. Few would dispute that the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki changed the world. Yet, how these weapons and technologies were developed remains a source of contention. Throughout the past few decades, the effects of this development have continued to affect the residents where this testing occurred. Downwind, a new documentary from Douglas Brian Miller and Mark Shapiro, looks at Mercury, Nevada and the surrounding areas. The stories they reveal are not just tragic but represent a terrifying truth about misinformation perpetrated by military sources.
From 1951 to 1992, more than 900 nuclear weapons were detonated near Mercury, Nevada. Other areas, including St. George, Utah, were affected by radiation traveling through the wind. Decades after testing stopped, the residents of these towns are still being diagnosed with cancer. The documentary traces the years of families suffering from the effects of radioactive fallout.
Much of the discussion in the documentary shifts between personal stories of victims, the indigenous tribes looking for new places to settle, and interviews with well-informed media personalities. Martin Sheen‘s narration helps link the pieces of the story while Michael Douglas and Lewis Black deliver common sense testimonies based on their works. Downwind also makes strong connections between The Conquerer, the 1956 film starring John Wayne, and the rates of cancer among the crew. Of the 220ish members of the crew, 91 would develop cancer, and a stunning 46 would die from cancer-related events. The film was shot in St. George, Utah.
However, the stories from residents in Utah are particularly affecting. One mother tells a story about her daughter’s diagnosis and eventual death from cancer. When the screen goes black, Miller and Shapiro reveal the half-dozen relatives the woman has lost to cancer. Worst of all, all her relatives had passed between the ages of 37 and 65. These stories make it clear we have problems with radiation, even if the government has denied these issues.
Miller and Shapiro deliver the information with brevity, often letting it speak for itself. However, at times the pacing feels off. While the inclusion of Black and Douglas will draw in audiences, they feel extraneous within the context of the film. Sheen’s narration is stellar, and they use it well. However, the score attached does not help Downwind. While an homage to the sounds of war and the nuclear age, it distracts more often than it supplements, partly because of its repetition. Pulling back on its use would have helped because the tragedy speaks for itself. At best, the score feels like a hat on a hat.
Downwind clearly states that the government does not give its citizens enough information about nuclear technologies. In fact, the lies feel especially negligent, as many would avoid the area if they knew the long-term effects of nuclear development. When the government and military institutions carry out disinformation projects on the American people, it’s hard to regain that trust. It’s scary to imagine what other environmental hazards could be affecting us at this very moment.