The half-life of radium-226, the toxic isotope touted as a miracle cure-all in the early 20th century and used in phosphorescent paint, is around 1,600 years. That of “Radium Girls,” the David-and Goliath story of a handful of young women taking Big Radium to court in the 1920s, is presumably much shorter.
In the two-and-a-half years since it premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, co-directors Lydia Dean Pilcher and Ginny Mohler’s dramatization seems to have lost quite a bit of whatever luster it might have once had. Scrupulously sincere in its approach and well-meaning to a fault in intention, the film aims for inspirational true story, but is sadly uninspired, and its relationship to real history is obscured by the schematic way it is fictionalized.
Playing characters who are an amalgam of the real heroines of the radium scandal, the film stars Joey King and Abby Quinn as sisters Bessie and Josephine Cavallo, who are both employed painting the numbers onto glow-in-the-dark clock faces at the nearby American Radium plant. Earning one penny for every completed dial, the exclusively female employees are encouraged, by sour-faced overseer Mrs Butkiss (Carol Cadby) and equally dour overseer Mr Leech (Scott Shepard) to increase their precision and productivity by licking the tips of their paintbrushes each time they dip them into the radium powder. In this way they are ingesting untold amounts of this deadly toxin, which they do not realize until Jo starts to get sick.
The company provides her with a clearly duplicitous doctor, who diagnoses her with syphilis, a conveniently taboo disease of which their dial-painter sister Mary also allegedly died. But Jo is a virgin and knows she cannot be syphilitic, so Bessie, transforming seemingly overnight from callow wannabe actress with stars in her eyes to impassioned social activist with fire in her belly, insists on a second opinion. It’s duly provided by the doctor Bessie finds through her new photographer boyfriend Walt’s (Collin Kelly-Sordelet) Communist Party connections to local labor league leader Wiley (Cara Seymour). Their fears are confirmed when the exhumation of Mary’s body reveals massive levels of radioactivity in her remains and when Jo, who has started to lose teeth as her jaw turns necrotic, is given just two years to live.
The story is enraging, and should hit home hard today for its combination of corporate malfeasance, high-level corruption and bribery, and the absolutely subhuman treatment of these young women as expendable worker bees to be summarily silenced when they outlast their usefulness to the suffocatingly male establishment. But despite the best efforts of the cast, particularly King and Quinn and a terrific Colby Minifie playing a grievously ill yet still spunky dial painter who joins the crusade, the stultifyingly literal script, co-written by Mohler and Brittany Shaw, unfolds to such a familiar rhythm that it becomes hard to invest in “Radium Girls” as anything more than an educational made-for-TV special. The liberal use of archive footage throughout compounds that small-screen docudrama feeling, with the scripted theatrics in between taking on the feel of dramatic reconstruction rather than actual drama.
The issues, quite literally, do not stop there: As though there were not enough for several films (or again, several hours of a TV miniseries, the format that might actually suit this narrative best) in the radium court case story, Pilcher and Mohler seem anxious to cram in a glancing reference to almost every historical event occurring in and around that time. The death of Rudolph Valentino, the construction of Mount Rushmore, the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, the executions of wrongly convicted anarchists Nikola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, the 1922 excavation of King Tutankhamun’s tomb, the Red Scare, the emergence of the labor movement, women’s suffrage and more, all get a hurried nod.
And so the many side characters come off mostly as mouthpieces for these prevailing, conflicting ideologies, as with poor Commie nonentity Walt — the kind of earnest young ideologue who responds to his date’s chit-chat about Mount Rushmore with a glum account of how it’s being built on sacred Native lands, and to her mention of the pyramids with a reminder that they were built with slave labor. Which is all correct of course but jeez, give a gal a break. And at worst, as with Etta (Susan Heyward), a Black photographer friend of Walt’s, the supporting cast can feel tokenistically summoned into being solely to tick off another box on an extremely long laundry list of socio-political hot topics. This only adds to the impression that “Radium Girls” is designed less as a movie and more as an improvingly educational experience that outlines a shameful incident in U.S. labor history and provides a cursory overview of the issues assailing young women in the 1920s. Which is very worthy, but not especially thrilling: When isotopes of radium decay they give off radon, a gas that has a great deal in common with “Radium Girls” in being both noble and inert.