Screening on Jan. 16 followed by panel discussion on nuclear power
By James O’Barr
Pandora’s Promise, next up for Depot Docs on Friday, Jan. 16, promises a lot. “When was the last time you saw a documentary that fundamentally changed the way you think?” asks the promotional blurb. “What if this cube (a sugar-cube-sized chunk of presumably nuclear fuel) could power your entire life?”
The film, written, produced, directed and shot by Oscar nominee Robert Stone (Radio Bikini), proposes that “the one energy source that has the ability to completely replace fossil fuels might be the one technology that environmentalists fear the most: nuclear power.” According to Stone and the witnesses for the prosecution he has assembled, it’s beyond a reasonable doubt: “The rapid deployment of nuclear power is now the greatest hope we have for saving us from an environmental catastrophe.”
Those witnesses, longtime environmental thinkers, writers and activists Stewart Brand, Richard Rhodes, Gwyneth Cravens, Mark Lynas and Michael Shellenberger, have all had conversion experiences, leaving behind former allies in the environmental movement. These dyed-in-the-wool, fundamentalist anti-nuclear activists, they say, are unable to get over their arms-race-induced fear and loathing of nuclear power.
As a result, they are as dangerous to the ecological health of the planet as climate-change deniers, guaranteeing the continued use of fossil fuels in an increasingly energy-hungry world. Brand and company, on the other hand, are presented as calm, thoughtful, caring, intelligent grown-ups who’ve looked long and hard at the facts, and have decided that to be truly green is to be enthusiastically nuclear.
It seems superfluous to say it in this golden age of documentary film, but Pandora’s Promise is beautifully made, with a gorgeous soundtrack by Gary Lionelli, artful editing by the Depot Docs’ own Don Kleszy, and some breathtaking cinematography (by the director) in the air and on the ground at both Fukushima and Chernobyl.
Showing those scenes of horrific devastation associated with nuclear power seemed at first a daring gamble, until it became clear that the purpose was to deconstruct and dismiss the received wisdom about the actual damage caused by the meltdowns at the plants. But with no other voice or source to serve as a counterargument, one is left entirely dependent on the filmmaker and his witnesses.
For a subject with as dark, difficult and contentious a history as nuclear power, with the fate of the earth in the balance and, especially here in Pete Seeger’s Hudson Valley, just upriver from the very large, very old nuclear facility at Indian Point, this seems a lost opportunity. Stone takes this question up at great length (76 pages) on the film’s website, in a section called “Pandora’s Back Pages: Notes on a Sustainable Nuclear Age” (pandoraspromise.com).
While acknowledging that “some viewers may feel slighted by neglect of anti-nuclear arguments,” he doesn’t include them here, providing instead 76 pages of information and commentary justifying the film’s nuclear advocacy. This would have been a good place to have addressed the serious question of the costs, and the time required, to build the modern fast breeder reactors discussed in the film.
Lucky members of the Depot Docs audience won’t have to wade through all that technical material, or be left wondering if, like the filmmaker, “everything I thought I knew about nuclear energy turned out to be wrong.”
Instead of the usual post-screening Q-and-A, Stone will be present for a panel discussion, moderated by Dot Earth’s Andy Revkin, with Riverkeeper’s Paul Gallay. That’s 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 16, at the Philipstown Depot Theatre, Garrison’s Landing. Advance tickets are highly recommended, and can be had at brownpapertickets.com. For more information, call the Depot Theatre at 845-424-3900, or go to philipstowndepottheatre.org.