A mix of fuzzy indictment and Errol Morris-style sarcastic Americana, “The Plutonium Circus” aims for surreal but ends up smirky. Doc about the U.S. Dept. of Energy’s nuclear-weapons dismanding plant outside Amarillo, Texas, scores as a polished first effort for helmer George Ratliff, and has won some admiring fest reviews. But p.o.v. is shifty, even underhanded at times. Pic currently is playing commercial dates one screen at a time through U.S.
The sprawling Pantex complex has, since the 1950s, been the final assembly point for U.S. nuclear weapons; with the end of the Cold War, it turned to disassembling those same objects. Most locals are longtime boosters — the economic bonuses are obvious, from some 11,000 directly affiliated jobs on down the line. Of course, Pantex also attracts controversy. There is no evidence that plutonium can be stored safely, so who would want it in their backyard, particularly when that “backyard” sits atop the largest fresh-water aquifer on the continent? Possible environmental impacts, a high local cancer rate and other fears are mentioned in passing here but never substantiated.
It’s not as though Ratliff couldn’t have found hard facts. But production notes say he wanted to make “a comedy disguised as a documentary,” one that uses its political/environmental theme basically as an excuse to sketch Texas Panhandle country as a society bigger (and weirder) than life. To that end, Ratliff indulges some self-consciously “eccentric” local personalities at length: Famed Cadillac Ranch outdoor sculpture designer Stanley Marsh 3 and collector of macabre errata Charles Johnson III are both wealthy, smug and pleased as punch to demonstrate how “outrageous” they are.
The director also interviews environmental activists, Dept. of Energy reps and average joes — but the extreme, cartoony camera perspectives usually conspire to make these people look and sound a bit ridiculous. His aesthetic reaches critical mass at the end, when yet more show-and-tell from Johnson is intercut with local politico and Pantex spokesman Kevin Knapp talking about his own, more vanilla hobbies, then singing country songs at a local pub. It’s clear we’re supposed to laugh with Johnson because he’s crazy-hip, and laugh at Knapp because he’s sooooo square.
Despite short running time, the fact that all this condescending humor never connects firmly to the nuclear dilemma leaves “The Plutonium Circus” with nowhere to go.
Package looks fine, with clever use of music (Charles Mingus, Bob Wills) and assured editing complementing sharp, if manipulative, images.
Pic is likely to please those with a penchant for easy irony, but others will wonder — rightly — just what the real point is. One fears it goes no deeper than (as Boy George haplessly sang a few years ago), “War is stupid, and people are stupid.”