Documentary powers discussion at Logan

By James Mackenzie

This past Sunday, the Logan Center held a screening and panel for Pandora’s Promise, the latest documentary from Academy Award–nominated filmmaker Robert Stone. The film covers the controversial issue of nuclear power, presenting it as the ideal solution to humanity’s energy and environmental woes.

The film is presented as a brief history of nuclear power, from the first nuclear submarine all the way to the disaster of the Fukushima plant in Japan and its aftermath. Along the way, viewers are treated to an overview of both the science behind nuclear power and the debate over it that continues to this day.

Guiding the audience through this history is a group of environmental activists and scientists who have all gone through a similar transformation from being opponents of nuclear power to ardent supporters of it. Particularly for the environmentalists, this change is presented as going strongly against the grain in the environmental field. The film opens with these people discussing their fears and misgivings over “coming out” to their peers about their newfound support for the controversial power source. This process reflected Stone’s own personal struggle with changing his opinion, calling Pandora’s Promise above all else “a film about changing one’s mind on something.”

The film’s argument hinges on two key points:  First, that nuclear power is much more efficient and less damaging to the atmosphere than fossil fuels (already generally accepted as fact), and second, that the amount and severity of radiation generated is far less than is commonly believed. Perhaps the most memorable and surprising details of the film are the comparisons of radiation levels across several areas. An audible murmur could be heard from the audience when it was revealed that radiation levels in New York City were greater than those found at Chernobyl.

Like other contemporary documentaries, the film makes no illusion about being anything but an attempt to convert its audience to the director’s ideology. There is very little in the way of reasonable presentation of arguments against nuclear power, and the few that are present are quickly deconstructed by the very people who said them. Stone was unapologetic when asked about the film’s balance, saying, “No one here would argue that Al Gore should have put climate deniers in his film for balance.”

Pandora’s Promise is very much an environmentalist film, but its target audience is quite different from that of others of its ilk. Instead of targeting climate change skeptics or the undecided or uninformed middle, it instead sets its sights on environmentalists who have bought into the conventional “myths” about nuclear power. Stone portrays them as perpetually stuck in their ways and blind to the solutions that will help them achieve their own goals. It will be interesting to see the reaction to this film when it reaches a wider release in June. While it is unlikely to gain the same traction as iconic documentaries such as An Inconvenient Truth, it could become a rallying cry for what the film views as sophisticated, post–baby boomer environmentalists.

Visually, the film features high production values, which have become synonymous with contemporary environmentalist documentaries. Yet instead of lush forests and oceans, the film combs over the destroyed landscapes of Chernobyl and Fukushima with equal detail. Of course, the film also utilizes the tried and true array of archival footage and computer-generated charts and graphics to reinforce its arguments about nuclear power. However, one grows tired of the clichéd graphic metaphors of football fields full of nuclear waste when the film’s signature shot—a man in various areas on the planet holding a Geiger counter—is far more provocative and effective in communicating the film’s message.

The panel afterward featured the director, Stone, along with nuclear scientist Hussein Khalil and University professor Robert Rosner. They mostly elaborated on the same points from the film while addressing the questions and concerns of the audience. What was most notable about the discussion was Stone’s detailed and comprehensive knowledge on both the science and the politics behind the issue: Not surprisingly, his role in the panel lent a great deal of credibility to the film.

Ultimately, Pandora’s Promise is convincing in its argument and has the potential to change minds on the issue of nuclear power. Given its intention, this is probably the highest compliment it can be afforded.

Pandora’s Promise by Robert Stone enters theaters June 14.