WILLIAM TUCKER: ‘Pandora’s Promise’ – Has Nuclear Found Its Michael Moore?

By WillIam Tucker

The Sundance Film Festival hardly seems like the place you would expect to find the start of a movement to turn public opinion around on nuclear energy, but that seems to be what is happening.

One of the surprise entries that is causing a great deal of buzz this year is Robert Stone’s “Pandora’s Promise,” a re-examination of nuclear from an environmental point of view.  Now Stone is not a filmmaker you would automatically expect to find supporting nuclear energy.  “My mother read me Silent Spring when I was nine and the specter of a Cold War nuclear holocaust was not an uncommon topic around the dinner table in my family,” he recounts on the film’s website. His first documentary, “Radio Bikini,” was about the first H-bomb test in 1946, was billed as “The Most Terrifying and Unbelievable Story of the Nuclear Age.”  It garnered an Academy Award nomination.  After that came documentaries on Lee Harvey Oswald and Patty Hearst.  Then four years ago he made “Earth Days,” a glowing history of the environmental movement that made it into Sundance and played on PBS’s “American Experience” series. 

So what happened?  Well, Stone says that during the making of “Earth Days” he began to grow a little disillusioned with environmentalists. "They'd get up and give a speech about how we were going to solve global warming but when you talked with them in a bar later they'd say there no hope, it's already too late.  They're very pessimistic.  I think we're the real optimists here.  Being pro-nuclear means you believe we can actually do something."

Going back for a second look at nuclear, he realized many other environmental enthusiasts had arrived at the same realization.  The result is a tour-de-horizon of the many converts – Steward Brand, Gwyneth Cravens, Mark Lynas and Michael Schellenberger, who all get ample time to make their case.  There’s lots of analysis of the true impacts of Chernobyl and Fukushima plus a detailed look at safety measures that have been incorporated into the technology. 

All this is having an impact.  Writing for Entertainment Weekly, veteran film critic Owen Gleiberman names “Pandora’s Promise” one of “12 Films to Keep an Eye On” at Sundance.  Here’s what he has to say: 

Robert Stone's amazing documentary about the myths and realities of nuclear power is built around what should be the real liberal agenda: looking at an issue not with orthodoxy, but with open eyes. Stone interviews environmentalists, scientists, and energy planners, all of whom were anti-nuclear power — and then, as they saw how much cleaner (and safer) it is than fossil fuels, began to change their minds. The film challenges the environmental movement's conflation of nuclear weapons and nuclear power into a single category of scientific evil. More than that, it looks without hysteria at what really happened at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. What you learn is almost spectacularly counterintuitive.

Tim Wu has had the same reaction on Slate:    

A good, politically charged documentary often seizes on what the audience already believes and throws fuel on the fire (see, e.g., the work of Michael Moore). A better such documentary tries to convince its audience that what it takes for granted is flat-out wrong. Pandora’s Promise, which premiered at Sundance, does just that. It makes the utterly convincing case that anyone who considers themselves an environmentalist or takes climate change seriously should favor more nuclear power.

Of course not everyone is convinced.  The Hollywood Reporter didn’t like the film at all and adds a smarmy innuendo that GE must have had something to do with the whole thing: 

The irony that screenings of Pandora’s Promise were preceded by presentations of a short documentary from the Focus Forward series, a filmmaking project supported by GE (a leading nuclear reactor manufacturer), was perhaps not lost on some viewers.

Altogether, Stone seems to have achieved a well-earned breakthrough – making nuclear energy a subject of rational debate instead of irresponsible demagoguery. He's not very impressed with the nuclear industry's efforts at marketing the technology.  "They did a commercial a few years back and didn't even mention global warming," he complains.  "They said it was too controversial.  If you can't sell nuclear energy on global warming, what can you do?"  Stone's new down-to-earth, cinematic approach may be just the right approach. After years of listening to the Helen Caldicotts of the world proselytize about the millions who have died as the result of Chernobyl and Fukushima, it’s a welcome departure.   

Look for it soon at a theater near you.

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  • http://twitter.com/Atomikrabbit Atomik Rabbit

    Bill – the film is “Pandora’s Promise”.

  • Brian Mays

    a filmmaking project supported by GE (a leading nuclear reactor manufacturer)

    General Electric: When they’re the bad guys, they’re “a leading nuclear reactor manufacturer.” When they’re the good guys, they’re a leading wind turbine and smart-grid manufacturer.

    Arbitrariness knows no greater source than the products of the “liberal” mind.

  • Gwyneth Cravens

    GE is one of many sponsors that support Sundance. The Hollywood Reporter ought to know that. Here’s a partial list: “The 2013 Sundance Film Festival® sponsors include: Presenting Sponsors –
    HP, Acura, Sundance Channel and Chase Sapphire PreferredSM; Leadership
    Sponsors – DIRECTV, Entertainment Weekly, FOCUS FORWARD, a
    partnership between GE and CINELAN, Southwest Airlines, Sprint and
    YouTube; Sustaining Sponsors – Adobe, Canada Goose, Canon U.S.A., Inc.,
    CÎROC Ultra Premium Vodka, FilterForGood®, a partnership between Brita®
    and Nalgene®, Hilton HHonors and Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts,
    Intel Corporation, L’Oréal Paris, Recycled Paper Greetings, Stella
    Artois® and Time Warner Inc.”

  • Gwyneth Cravens

    I have to correct my comment regarding GE. According to Robert Stone, GE sponsored the short film on solar panels that Sundance chose to program before his. GE had nothing to do with the festival in general, let alone his film.