In the film business, as in politics, timing is everything. And the timing of Nuclear, Oliver Stone’s new documentary, could hardly be worse.
The doc, which premiered out of competition at the Venice Film Festival on Friday, Sept. 9 and is being sold worldwide by the Gersh Agency, is a plea for world powers to invest heavily in nuclear power as the only realistic alternative to fossil fuels in the fight against climate change. It’s a thoughtful and reasoned argument, backed by an array of experts and supported with an encyclopedia’s worth of facts and figures which, thanks to Stone’s skill as an editor and storyteller, don’t weigh down the film’s 105-minute running time.
Too bad, then, that Nuclear debuts just as Russian and Ukraine forces battle it out over the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, with daily news coverage of the shelling, explosions and fires around the facility, Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, in southern Ukraine. Just as Stone is asking us to take another look at nuclear, headlines proclaiming the dangers of “another Chernobyl” are reviving old fears about atomic power.
“That’s the sense so sensational side to the story, which is always easy for the media to do, because it makes good copy,” says Stone, “but speaking to experts, there’s no reason to believe [Zaporizhzhia] could be anything close to Chernobyl… and even the ultimate number of deaths at Chernobyl, as we go into the film, were very low compared to worse accidents in other industries.”
Joshua S. Goldstein, an international relations scholar whose book, A Bright Future, written with Swedish nuclear engineer Staffan Qvist, was the inspiration for Nuclear, and who co-wrote the movie with Stone, sees the current media scare as a continuation of Cold War atomic fears.
“I’m 69 years old and remember literally getting down under the desk in school to prepare for what to do in a nuclear attack,” Goldstein recalls. “That is completely traumatizing. We were all, as the film talks about, traumatized by and afraid of the threat of nuclear weapons. But then it got applied to anything nuclear. And then the oil and gas industry saw the opportunity to make people afraid of a competitor. And then it took a life of its own.”
Nuclear traces how nuclear weapons and nuclear power were linked in the public imagination, cross-cutting footage of atomic mushroom clouds with images of the 3-eyed radioactive fish from The Simpsons.
“As ridiculous as it seems, that image: that nuclear waste is green, and is stirred in barrels and dumped, with no safety protocols. Which is all completely untrue. But the fear is there,” says Goldstein. “I hope our film can make people understand nuclear power better and make people feel less afraid of it.”
The main argument of Nuclear is that the dangers and risks of atomic power are overblown and exaggerated and that, given the very real and growing dangers of climate change, nuclear energy is the only way out. Nuclear looks on approvingly as Sweden uses nuclear power to rapidly decarbonize and frets as countries like Germany pull back from atomic energy in the wake of the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima.
Nuclear is presented as factual and non-partisan — “I think we very evenhanded in how we addressed everything,” says Stone— but some audiences might have trouble seeing past the presenter. Stone, arguably one of the most politically divisive figures working in movies today, narrates the film, and appears on screen for much of it.
Nuclear began shooting years before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but the ongoing war is certain to shape reactions to the documentary. Stone took heat in 2017 for allegedly snuggling up to the Russian president in his 2017 documentary series The Putin Interviews. In Nuclear, the director repeatedly praises Russia for its forward-looking approach to nuclear power, as a model for the US and other countries.
“You can say the United States and Russia are at odds now and yes, it’s horrible and it’s wrong, but I’ve been saying from the beginning, as I did the Putin documentary, that there is no reason for the United States and Russia not to be partners,” says Stone.
Goldstein doesn’t quite agree.
“Of the whole film, there’s like 45 seconds in there where it says we should cooperate with Russia and China,” he notes. “I talked with Oliver about that a few times. It’s obviously a very optimistic and very long-term vision, because it’s clear that sort of cooperation is not happening now.”
Stone remains outspoken and candid in his politics —in the interview with The Hollywood Reporter he lambasted the US for “antagonizing Russia” through NATO expansion and mused that dictatorships China and Russia “can sometimes achieve a lot more” in fighting climate change than Western democracies.
The success, or not, of Nuclear will depend on how much audiences are willing to ignore the film’s messenger and focus on the message.
“This film is not about politics, it’s not political,” says Stone. “The future of the human race is more important than all that bullshit.”