"Dark Circle," a polemical documentary now at the Dupont Circle, is a relatively late arrival in the cycle of films intended to recall some of the sobering history associated with the atomic age.

Like its most prominent and engrossing predecessors--"The Day After Trinity," "Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang," "The Atomic Cafe"--"Dark Circle" reflects a perspective clearly intended to heighten apprehensions about nuclear armaments and nuclear power and propagandize for their suppression, an undeniably desirable goal whose practical difficulties tend to be maddeningly underestimated.

The consistently sober, reflective tone imposed on "Dark Circle" by the filmmaking team of Judy Irving, Chris Beaver and Ruth Landy came as a welcome contrast, as far as I was concerned, to the opportunistic facetiousness of "The Atomic Cafe." Moreover, this new antinuke compilation calls attention to a specific, regional problem--the public health hazards posed by encroaching residential development near the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons factory in Colorado--that seems relatively unexplored and legitimately alarming.

"Dark Circle" doesn't make an issue of what would seem to be an intriguing zoning blunder, if not scandal, since the filmmakers are ultimately preoccupied with The Big Nuclear Picture and tend to subordinate the "little," local aspects that provide them with fresh, intimate and affecting documentary testimony and impressions.

It seems to be impossible to "prove" that being in the vicinity of plutonium wastes or bomb fallout has caused outbreaks of cancer in animals or humans, but the circumstantial testimony and evidence are extremely compelling. Between Reasons of State and the carelessness of life in general, it's easy to believe that a lot of people in authority have found it convenient to be more sanguine or evasive about radiation hazards than the facts and public health considerations warrant.

The ordinary witnesses assembled to make this point in "Dark Circle"--a Rocky Flats factory worker with a fatal brain tumor; a developer whose little girl died of a bone cancer suspiciously linked to plutonium; a farmer whose stock displays oddly mutant, deformed characteristics every so often; a former airman who was in a plane blithely flown by its pilot through the atomic cloud over a bomb test in the Pacific who now finds himself suffering from leukemia and unable to obtain financial compensation from the Veterans Administration--have no ideological ax to grind.

The nuclear power plants pose problems, God knows, but it demands some deliberate fuzziness to equate their sort of risky business with the sort practiced at Rocky Flats. Of course, the filmmakers are disposed to weigh the evidence in a way that discredits nuclear power in any form. It represents destructive forces by definition, and the concept of "peaceful applications" is a delusion. But there's a measure of futility about this argument: the plea that all this nuclear madness must stop is contradicted by a despairing refrain that suggests nothing can be done since we're all contaminated by that cursed plutonium anyway.

Judy Irving's soft, melancholy voice gives the narration a modest, effective personal touch when concerned with down-to-earth crises like the worries of Rocky Flats residents. Unfortunately, it also has a portentously woeful cosmic note, evident right from the beginning in a passage that echoes Time magazine brooding from a lofty rhetorical cloud: "Four billion years ago life began on earth . . . one million years ago these geese insert shots of wild geese flying began to migrate well, not exactly--their distant ancestors, perhaps . . . five thousand years ago people began to record their history . . . forty years ago insert mushroom cloud . . . "

This approach doesn't put things in useful perspective. If anything, it invites criticism (and cynicism) on the grounds that the filmmakers really avoid taking the long view when it doesn't suit their purposes.

For example, we're made gravely aware of how dangerous plutonium is and that the arsenals of the world are loaded with this awesomely durable stuff. But there's not the faintest acknowledgment of a logical consequence of this dilemma: Even if global disarmament were authorized tomorrow and enhanced by a moratorium on political disputes, the responsibility of safeguarding and dismantling the present arsenals would perpetuate dreadful risks and uncertainties for several centuries.