"Richland" review: a sensitive portrait of the American dream and the consequences of a nuclear legacy

“Richland” review: a sensitive portrait of the American dream and the consequences of a nuclear legacy

In the town of Richland, Washington, created in 1943 as part of an underground government program, there is a street called Proton Lane, the high school football team is called the Bombers, and the school mascot is a mushroom cloud. It’s been decades since the nearby Hanford Nuclear Site was decommissioned, but Richland remains, in many ways, a company town, explored with sincerity and penetrating insight in Irene Lusztig’s eloquent documentary.

For more than 40 years, the Hanford site has produced weapons-grade plutonium, 14 pounds of which went into “Fat Boy,” the bomb the United States detonated over Nagasaki as the last, deadly shot in World War II. In what could be called a sign of excess, some 70 tons of plutonium remained in storage at the sprawling facility when it shut down. Today, underground storage tanks filled with more than 50 million gallons of radioactive waste present an intractable problem cleaning problem.

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The bottom line

A nice fusion.

Place: Tribeca Film Festival (Documentary Competition)
Director: Irene Lusztig

1 hour and 33 minutes

There is much to be said about Hanford, who, through eminent domain, claimed 600 square miles of arid scrub grassland and steppe along the Columbia River, displacing citizens and separating indigenous tribes from their ancestral home. Many of these things have been said over the decades, in devastating denunciations and reports. Turning her attention to Richland, which was built to house the families of Hanford employees, director-producer-editor Lusztig has crafted a moving, composite portrait, a kaleidoscopic chronicle of a complicated legacy.

Hanford and his company city were part of Christopher Nolan’s top-secret Manhattan Project Oppenheimerwhich opens in a few weeks, will examine from the point of view of the hot spots of the nuclear program, its leading scientists and political power players. Richland it deals not with upper management but with people who have grown up in the idyllic mid-century sheen of the middle-class advancement borough.

Many of their fathers, who held high-paying jobs in “the area,” as the riverside reactor complex was euphemistically known, died young of cancer related to radiation exposure. The health of people living downwind of the structure was also affected. A section of a local cemetery is filled with children’s graves. For several slow, steady breaths, cinematographer Helki Frantzen fills the frame with a few stone markers from the 1940s and 1950s, one after another, their painfully short epitaphs commemorating lives that lasted a few months, days, or hours.

Rather than plotting a fateful chronology, Lusztig, with Frantzen’s work loud and clear, captures Richland’s gestalt, weaving together a powerful selection of new interviews, archival footage, music and songs. A key element of the document is the poem from the 2012 book Plume by Kathleen Flenniken, who grew up in Richland, her father a chemist from Hanford. In comfortable settings, four of her poems are read on screen by Richland natives who share the memories they evoke. In one case, the woman reading “To Carolyn’s Father” is Carolyn herself. “I think I trusted the wrong people,” her loyal Hanford employee father told her before he died at 59.

So secret was the work at first that many of those stamping at Hanford did not know its exact nature. If they had been told of his dangers, it was only in passing, with implicit promises that they were somehow protected. In chilling vintage footage, a worker preparing to enter what is presumably a high-risk section is clad in protective clothing that looks like thick cellophane. The film’s most terrifying images reveal radioactivity experiments on farm animals.

A woman remembers the weekly metal box left on the porch for her father: a urine test kit. It was just a part of life in a quiet model city that stood at the forefront of a superpower’s nuclear arsenal. The human ability to compartmentalize is at the heart of Richland. It is the ability to focus on the decent life that a job offers, and not on the mortal dangers it presents or the weapons of mass destruction that are its product: to embrace, or at least accept, the concept of peace through war. A genius former Hanford janitor who now owns a food truck says he sees the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki as neither good nor bad, but necessary to preserve the United States.

Instead of closing after the war, as expected, Hanford dug in and grew as a Cold War mentality gripped the nation. Commemorated in one of Flenniken’s poems and in stunning archival footage, President Kennedy’s visit to Hanford took place on a sunny September day, just weeks before his assassination, to mark the inauguration of the site’s ninth reactor, that would be the last. Its first — the world’s first plutonium-producing reactor — is now part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park and offers tours, one of which is glimpsed in Richland.

In its final section, the film moves more directly towards the art and longing for symbolic gestures of reconciliation and acknowledgment of pain. Beyond the poetry, there is the emotional intensity of a choral performance of a work called Nuclear dreams (Libretto is by Nancy Welliver, who worked at Hanford most of her life, with music by Reginald Unterseher). And there’s the ethereal, haunting beauty of a work by Hiroshima-born visual artist Yukiyo Kawano, a third-generation survivor of the atomic bomb.

Haunting in different ways, Linda Allen’s 1989 song “Termination Winds” is heard twice in the film, most memorably. A man in a diner delivers an impromptu a capella version that accentuates hometown love and fortitude in the face of scrubland adversity, and two women, with banjo and guitar on the dusty road near the Hanford site, they infuse the number with the thick lilting of a protest song.

In that diner, in people’s homes, at Atomic Frontier Days parades, and in Richland’s quiet riverfront park, Lusztig engages with a diverse range of residents. Many express local pride. Only a few speak of loss and grief, among them a Wanapum elder. He describes the Army’s promise to his grandfather that they could return to their home turf when the US government finished its plan. His extended family gathers in his backyard to talk about their connection to the land. “Time to go home,” he says. But that house has changed forever.

The Confederate Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation have undertaken a major restoration project, planting native plants in the pristine area around Hanford. It is on this forward-looking note that the documentary opens. The main section of the site, however, remains permanently unusable. Not unlike the dark side of Hanford’s legacy that many people prefer not to face directly, the radioactive mud is there, not far below the surface. With curiosity and attention, Richland peer into the heart of a small town, recognize the joys and unearth the pain, loss and broken promises.