The Atom: A Love Affair

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Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Atom: A Love Affair
"This cutesy framing doesn't do much to conceal its otherwise very straightforward narrative structure, but there's nothing necessarily wrong with that."

At first it seemed like a dream come true. The atom would take care of everything, paving the way for a bright and shining future. It was only after the romance had begun that the public, watching its behaviour and reflecting on its past, began to suspect that it might have a darker side. Still, no-one really imagined the extent of the awful things it would do. Afterwards, it was still hard to let go of the dream. Full of charm, the atom repeatedly succeeded in winning back the public's affections. When dangers emerged, it was ready to be a hero, fending off those foreign types or even saving us from climate change. Couldn't we give it just one more chance? Had we ever really shown it the understanding it deserved?

A history of the atom - or rather, the splitting of the atom, and and nuclear power - framed as a romance, The Atom: A Love Affair incorporates numerous clips of young women gasping or sighing dramatically, and enough nuclear-themed love songs to fill a long submarine journey. This cutesy framing doesn't do much to conceal its otherwise very straightforward narrative structure, but there's nothing necessarily wrong with that. It's a solid enough story, amply illustrated with good quality archive footage. A good variety of contributors share their views, from scientists, politicians and corporate players to people who were tasked with that day to day work of keeping nuclear power plants active.

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All the famous disasters are covered here, of course - Windscale/Sellafield, Chernobyl, Fukushima - with reflections on how the global political climate changed in the aftermath of each. There's a look at the interplay between the nuclear power industry and attempts by various governments to produce weapons grade plutonium. The film doesn't stick to these easily addressed contentious topics, however, but looks at subtler challenges like the need for subsidy to keep uneconomic power plants running for long periods until they can (at least in theory) start to pay for themselves. It calls out some of the well-intentioned propaganda around nuclear waste and attempts to bring the real difficulties that it presents to light.

The friendly, storybook narration invites shrewder viewers to question to ease with which any of us can lapse into perceiving a tale like this in simple Hollywood terms, along with the last minute solutions and happy ending we've learned to expect. Real life, of course, is messier than that. Still, this isn't a film that urges us to wash that radiation right out of our hair. Rather, it encourages us to understand the nature of our emotional responses to its subject, for good or ill, potentially leaving us better equipped to approach important questions in the cool light of reason.

Reviewed on: 15 May 2020
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Documentary about humanity's love affair with nuclear power.

Director: Vicki Lesley

Starring: Narrated by, Lily Cole

Year: 2020

Runtime: 89 minutes

Country: UK

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