Documentaries about nuclear war and/or survival are spreading like shock waves. Five blocks up from the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue, "Atomic Cafe" is packing them in with its "Reefer Madness"-style essay on Cold War atomic propaganda. Seven blocks farther, at the Biograph Theatre, are two ultimately sobering films, "Eight Minutes to Midnight" and "No Place to Hide."
"Midnight" is an hour-long portrait of Dr. Helen Caldicott, the Australian-born pediatrician who has become one of the most eloquent nuclear activists through her book, "Nuclear Madness," and through the Physicians for Social Responsibility, which she organized. The film was shot by Mary Benjamin from mid-1978 to mid-1980, and follows Caldicott on a series of lectures and demonstrations over a life-or-death-of-the-planet issue that grew in immediacy because of Three Mile Island. In a speech at the time, Caldicott predicted "in two years, it will be millions of Americans marching against nuclear buildups ." She was right.
Caldicott, described by one interviewer as "a living whirlwind," is a compelling figure passionately fighting to overcome misinformation about nuclear dangers--not just war, but waste disposal and accidents and exposure to radiation. She refers constantly to "the greatest public health hazard the world has ever known, the most important issue to face the human race," carrying her litany of survival and responsibility to anyone who will listen--small hospital groups, political demonstrations, radio and television talk shows (on one, she's sandwiched between child evangelist-turned-actor Marjoe and the rock band Dr. Hook).
Watching Caldicott become more assured in her delivery as she marshalls facts and emotion is as exhausting as it is exhilarating: At the May 1979 March on Washington, she addresses a huge throng, rattling off probable aftereffects had the Three Mile Island accident not been brought under control.
At one point, Caldicott becomes visibly upset after being cut off Australian radio before she can respond, as if every word unsaid is time off the clock (the film gets its title from a mythical clock in which the world's history is contained in 24 hours). In Mount Taylor, N.M., she finds it impossible to continue, finally summing it all up succinctly: "We've got to stop it." She speaks about her "reverence for nature," about her love for children, for humankind. "I'm damned if I'm going to let those bastards kill us all," she shouts at one point. Prophetically, her lone voice has become a chorus.
"No Place To Hide," produced and directed by Tom Johnson and Lance Bird, utilizes some of the same vintage propaganda footage as "Atomic Cafe," without sarcastic editing or cross-cutting. Though it concentrates on the public and private selling of bomb shelters--physical as well as emotional ones--the film addresses the same central issues: "The official message was, 'You can be safe'; the message that our hearts read was, 'There's no place to hide.' "
For upbeat protection, even the propaganda films weren't too reassuring: Despite implications that the atomic flash was kind of a super GE bulb burning out, that burns were no worse than "a terrible sunburn," there were underlying currents guaranteed to instill the psychic numbing that did, in fact, occur: "The atom bomb can get you any time of the year, day or night," announces one cheery voice-over. There are metal identification tags "so you can be identified"; shelters should become as integral to the happy home as the kitchen or bathroom. This was the government speaking, and lots of people were listening.
The frame for both films at the Biograph (they'll be there through June 24) comes in the opening lines of "No Place to Hide," after a freeze frame on a youngster locked out of his home and shelter during an attack: "Sometimes the bomb fell in that dream; sometimes the dream ended before the bomb fell. But it always ended with you alone, with no place to hide. We who grew up after the bomb know this landscape."
It's a landscape Helen Caldicott wants to erase . . . in our time.