An uncommonly potent take on a subject of major global importance, Stephen Trombley’s “Stockpile” is a bracingly smart/funny/scary history of the U.S.-U.S.S.R. nuclear arms race, the scientists behind it and its enduring legacy of thousands of stockpiled, past-their-prime nuclear weapons. Chock-full of scientific minutiae, never-before-seen archival footage and crackling gallows humor, pic opens a bold dialogue on nuclear disarmament without adhering to any perceived standards of political correctness. It looks with equal amounts of reverence and terror at mankind’s mastery of nuclear fission and fusion. Though hardly a commercial topic, pic’s inevitable controversy should draw in politically aware auds, while cabler Discovery Channel, which will premiere docu in October prior to its theatrical release, should be applauded for helping to make it.
By enormous good fortune, Trombley and his crew obtained permission to shoot inside the famed nuclear laboratory at Los Alamos, N.M., and to interview its past and present employees. But even more stunningly, a pre-Putin Russian government granted Trombley the same access to Arzamas-16, the secret “nuclear city” that is the Russian equivalent of Los Alamos, and which to this day has never been identified on a Russian map.
Opening with the May 2000 Los Alamos wildfire that first drew many Americans’ attention to the sheer volume of dormant nuclear weapons housed at the facility, “Stockpile” also informs of an equally grave, lesser known dilemma: the numerous bombs and tons of plutonium found to be missing from Arzamas-16 after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Pic then jumps back to WWII and the development of the first atomic and hydrogen bombs, skillfully cutting between stock footage of bomb tests and construction, and new interviews with surviving Manhattan Project physicists. Trombley gets inside the minds of these scientists (and their Russian counterparts) and allows us to share, from their points of view, the awe of watching a newly built nuclear device detonate properly for the first time. Acting out of a desire to master their own environment, these men display the pride of a parent sending his child off to the first day of school. As one interviewee puts it, watching the bomb detonate is like witnessing the creation of the world.
Trombley eventually cuts to stark newsreel footage of dazed, radiation-burned victims in the wake of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. While the juxtaposition is appropriately startling, the disappointment of “Stockpile” is that it never goes deep enough into this continental divide between science and morality, and Trombley stops short of questioning any of his subjects about the contradictory pragmatic and intuitive ways of viewing the nature of their work.
That matter aside (and it’s a subject weighty enough to merit its own film), “Stockpile” excels at addressing its title dilemma in intelligent, aggressive ways. Pic takes us step-by-step through Los Alamos’ ritual of “stockpile stewardship,” by which individual warheads are disassembled, piece by piece, and tested for functionality — a maintenance procedure that costs the government several billion dollars annually. At least two people, we are told, are hospitalized daily as the result of radiation accidents at Los Alamos — with the bottom line being that there are no certainties when it comes to the safety of dormant, atomically manipulated weapons that constantly undergo infinitesimal molecular changes.
Yet throughout, “Stockpile” never sounds the panic alarms nor — most refreshingly — exhibits any pressure to take a position on the subject of nuclear proliferation. Even the funny, bombastic delivery of narrator (and anti-nuclear activist) Martin Sheen seems both a riff on Sheen’s current role as U.S. president on TV’s “The West Wing” and a clever way of consistently reminding the audience that this is a forward-thinking (as opposed to backward-glancing) film.