In NUCLEAR FAMILY, Erin and Travis Wilkerson invite their audience on a family road trip to nuclear silos across the western United States. Towards the end of the documentary, the Wilkerson family collapse after singing the final line of the English nursery rhyme “Ring a Ring o’ Roses” while circling a missile: “We all fall down”. As the family collapse under the looming power of the weapon, it is hard not to be reminded of the 1949 parody printed in “The Observer”: “Ring-a-ring-o'-geranium, A pocket full of uranium, Hiro, shima, All fall down!”. 1Ioana Opie and Peter Opie. "The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes". Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966.
NUCLEAR FAMILY suggests that the phenomenon Robert J. Lifton and Richard Falk called “nuclearism”, which refers to “psychological, political, and military dependence on nuclear weapons” and “the embrace of the weapons as a solution to a wide variety of human dilemmas, most ironically that of ‘security’”, is not just a symptom of the twentieth century but an ongoing seduction. 2Robert J. Lifton and Richard Falk. "Indefensible Weapons: The Political and Psychological Case Against Nuclearism". New York: Basic Books, 1982. One of this film’s chief ambitions is to disrupt “nuclear normality”, which Lifton and Eric Markusen describe as grooming nuclear acceptance through the normalization of the weapon and the derision of fear. 3Robert J. Lifton and Eric Markusen. "The Genocide Mentality". New York: Basic Books, 1990. Today, nuclear normality marks a fatigued ultra-awareness that creates ambivalence. The public is conditioned to view the nuclear threat as unavoidable, and thus it becomes normalised: “we are aware at some level that in a moment we and everyone and everything we have ever touched or loved could be annihilated, and yet we go about our ordinary routines as though no such threat exists”. 4Ibid. Nuclear normality is directly commented on in the film when Travis warns that “having normalised nearly every atrocity, they are now even trying to normalise dropping nuclear bombs”.
Travis’ narration reminds himself, as well as us, of the trauma the land has seen and the insidious ways it has been weaponized over centuries.
The Wilkersons, however, are not numbed by nuclearism. After a period of ambivalence in Travis’ adult years, trigger events like the 2016 Presidential Election and the accidental release of The Pentagon’s ‘Joint Publication Number 3-72: Nuclear Operations’ (2019) cause his nightmares to return, marking a renewed and intense disillusionment with America’s nuclear programme. The family road trip across the western states is an attempt to quell this rising fear, but by returning constantly to the open landscape Travis’ narration reminds himself, as well as us, of the trauma the land has seen and the insidious ways it has been weaponized over centuries.
As shots shift from buildings to explosions to the rural landscape, the filmmakers’ message resonates: the threat of an apocalypse is ever-present, intruding on family time and lingering like a radioactive cloud overhead. However, NUCLEAR FAMILY does not only highlight the danger of a potential nuclear war but draws attention to recklessness in industry. Commenting on stories of intoxicated crews on duty in Grover, Colorado, the narrator remarks that “having turned the land into a gun, the gun is now wasted and tripping”. The adjectives “wasted” and “tripping” conjure ideas of a drunken, bumbling workforce as well as the perilousness of the technology.
The film opens with a definition. “Invasive species” we are told, means “any kind of living organism that is not native to an ecosystem and causes harm.” As the narrative unfolds, it becomes alarmingly apparent that the invasive species is us, as NUCLEAR FAMILY exposes the way humans (in a very Heideggerian sense) view nature as a mere tool to be exploited and weaponised. By referencing massacres, genocide, the loss of communities like the Ancestral Pueblo, and catastrophic war acts like the nuclear strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, NUCLEAR FAMILY articulates an ongoing narrative of apocalypse and the human obsession with war. We are reminded, constantly, that cataclysmic events—often engineered—are part of our human history.
Two hands intertwined
When the Wilkerson family wander White Sands National Park in New Mexico Travis probes in voiceover that, “you don’t have to travel far from the site of the test to imagine what the world might have looked like.” Here we are warned that we do not need to look to Hollywood blockbusters to help us imagine how the end of the world may look, we just need to reflect on our own history and inherited bloody landscapes. The connection between the gory past and the potentially apocalyptic future is commented on when the narrator reflects on the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864: “the destruction of Native America and the threat of the destruction of the world are the fingers of two hands intertwined.”
The acclimatisation of humans to silos in the wilderness finds the family in this film becoming nuclear tourists on a pilgrimage from one apocalyptic monument to another.
Philosopher Jacques Ellul in his influential text “The Technological Society” (1954) argues that the high level of technological dominance has rendered the human environment inhuman: “Men now live in conditions that are less than human”. 5Jacques Ellul. "The Technological Society". Translated by Robert K. Merton. New York: Vintage Books, 1964. Similarly, philosopher of technology, Lewis Mumford, in “The Myth of the Machine” (1964), argues that humans have used nature to propel technological innovation forwards but this endeavour has resulted in an estrangement between humans and the planet. This intensive mechanisation has resulted in generations of humans who “virtually forget that there had ever existed any other kind of environment”. 6Lewis Mumford. "The Myth of the Machine". London: Secker and Warburg, 1971.
The acclimatisation of humans to silos in the wilderness finds the family in this film becoming nuclear tourists on a pilgrimage from one apocalyptic monument to another. For Travis, who recalls a similar trek as a child to nuclear silos spread throughout Montana, Mumford’s assertion that humans forget any other environment is not only true but poignant here, as the narrator takes his own children on a similar tour and thus embeds across generations the nuclear reality of the American landscape. Silos are now as naturalised as the flora and fauna captured in the family’s photographs and spliced between scenes.
Just over halfway through the film, we are exposed to the story of The Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana, a former copper mine now drowned with polluted water. Poetically, the narrator describes the carnivorous danger of the pit: “the predator skipped town but the hole keeps on killing. It's filling up with toxic water. The water is so acidic, it can melt a steel propeller. Despite terrifying noises designed to scare them off, birds keep landing in the water”. As the filmmakers detail the death of birds, the metaphor crystalises: nuclear technology is another death pit. Humans, like the birds at The Berkeley Pit, are drawn to the nuclear despite the perils. As NUCLEAR FAMILY declares to its audience, “like it or not we are on this trip together.” That is the difference between past wars and a speculative nuclear war: a future war will not be about ‘them vs us’, for it will see the annihilation of everyone. We are in this together—until we “all fall down”.
Grace Halden is a Senior Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck College, University of London.