The Atom: A Love Affair




Worthwhile material wrapped up in a concept that feels decidedly misguided.

Atom - A Love Affair

This being a documentary about nuclear power, its title strikes me as incongruous: the notion of finding here any kind of love story, metaphorical or otherwise, is surely totally out to place. Unfortunately, Vicki Lesley, who has spent years bringing this piece to fruition, takes a different view. Nevertheless, there is no denying that the changing responses both positive and negative to the use of nuclear energy over almost seventy years make for a subject well worthy of attention in a feature film and in many respects this documentary does it well.


Lesley has on hand a vast number of interviewees so that in addition to much useful historical footage we get   comments from politicians, nuclear engineers, protesters and authors among others. Sensibly, it is treated in chronological order. Starting with the promotion of the benefits newly available in the 1950s ('Atoms for Peace'), the film proceeds by outlining the worries about possible accidents and the issues around radioactivity as expressed in the following decade before moving on to show later concerns about plutonium and the subsequent reactions to actual tragic accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. We see how these incidents vindicated those who had campaigned against nuclear power but yet failed to prevent a subsequent rethink after global warming underlined the dangers of coal as opposed to the clean air associated with nuclear energy. The film is very good too at bringing out the varying attitudes found in different countries and at different times (Germany emerges as the country most consistently opposed). Furthermore, in coming right up to date the film can be said to end aptly enough with a question mark.


It could indeed be suggested that the early publicity in the 1950s sought to woo the public, but to suggest that a relationship was created akin to an on/off love affair makes little sense (nor is it an effective way of lightening the mood at times if that were the intention). Even so, Lesley pursues this idea throughout her film: early chapters include 'The Matchmakers', 'Falling in Love' and 'First Doubts', the latter leading the narration spoken by Lily Cole to assure us that the honeymoon couldn't last. A much later chapter is entitled 'Second Chance at Love' and at one stage when the cost of nuclear reactors increases it is likened to going out on an expensive date. This is not witty or engaging and I for one would call it just plain silly, but Lesley persists in pursuing it and even inserts throughout brief clips of couples in or out of harmony to keep up the parallel.


Just ignore it (and tiresome as it is that can be done) and you are left with an able survey that contains apt references to Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and Parents for a Nuclear Free Future. As regards the U.K. there is plenty about Sellafield but oddly the famous CND Easter marches to Aldermaston are not included. However, there is plenty here to appeal to serious viewers without any need to tart it up in a misguided bid to make it an easier watch.




Featuring  Jack Horner, Walt Patterson, Bernard Laponche, Bertrand Barre, Louis Gwin, Pete Wilkinson, Liz Apfelberg, Ralph Nader, Tony Benn, Bernard Ingham, William D. Magwood, with Lily Cole (narrator).


Dir Vicki Lesley, Pro Vicki Lesley, Sue Aubrey and Svetlana Yegorova-Johnstone, Screenplay Vicki Lesley, Ph Michael Timney, Owen Scurfield and others, Ed Phil Reynolds, Music Paul Honey.


Tenner Films/Dartmouth Films/BFI/Creative England-Dartmouth Films.
89 mins. UK. 2020. Rel: 15 May 2020. Available on Curzon Home Cinema. No Cert.