Vicki Lesley's documentary The Atom: A Love Affair tells a story you might think you had some handle on in a way you probably wouldn't expect. Its subject is the development of atomic and nuclear power in the decades since World War II, deploying an impressive, pan-global roster of industry experts, scholars and politicos to talk us through the process whereby a force that resembled the end of the world circa Hiroshima came to be rebranded as an exciting, energy efficient new beginning. (The film opens with enthusiastic nuclear endorsements from David Cameron and Donald Trump; somewhere in the background of Lesley's mind is the promise right-wing governments have made to press ahead with a proposed nuclear revolution in the face of decades of protest.) Yet this account is presented in semi-satiric fashion, with knowing Lily Cole narration, and ironic inserts from trashy B-movies and public information films that suggest a romance between this form of power and the powers-that-be: how latter fell hard for the former, and how they ran a little scared after explosive bust-ups at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl; how, in the absence of any cheaper options, they came to embrace nuclear all over again, only for the giant F-U of Fukushima to give everyone but the UK's Conservatives - busy striking lucrative deals with the Chinese - renewed pause for thought about the relationship. That's the problem with hooking up for big bangs with an unstable ex: it can be electrifying, until someone winds up getting badly hurt. The framing allows Lesley to skewer certain romantic myths about nuclear. The dream of "total energy independence", blustered about by Trump in that prologue, is shown to date back at least as far as the (environmentally progressive) Nixon administration, and debunked as at best idle fantasy; similarly, the idea that building vast reactor sites and sourcing plutonium with which to run them might be cheaper, over the long haul, than putting in a call to the Russians or Saudis and asking them to pipe over some oil or gas. The Labour government's bailout of British Energy in 2002 demonstrates how nuclear has always been somewhat high-maintenance; still, as they say, love is often blind.
The slight flaw of Lesley's film is a consequence of its ambition and its strengths: it never feels less than densely packed, attempting to tell three stories at once - the development of nuclear in the UK, US and mainland Europe - and to get them all into 90 minutes. You admire the compression involved, and how much information it gets in, while wondering whether the film isn't on the verge of some meltdown of its own. Unlike at Chernobyl, however - a dark cloud Lesley very skilfully evokes through the jumpy, Geiger-counter fear her interviewees felt at ground level - there's a calm head and a safe pair of hands at the helm, and The Atom generally proves to make the right decisions. That three-track narrative, for one, allows Lesley to draw an instructive comparison between different approaches, pointing out how - unlike the UK, governed increasingly by money, short-termism and political expediency - Germany made several wise choices twenty years ago that have allowed it to lead the way today. And wherever her narrative is in time, Lesley has a knack for honing in on the most stimulating material available to her, be that the futuristic exhibits at a post-WW2 Atoms for Peace expo, German environmentalists facing off against massed ranks of police, or an anecdote Ralph Nader tells about being on the Saturday Night Live set as Three Mile Island went up in smoke. One health warning: you will be exposed to some carcinogenically dire anti-nuclear protest pop and cabaret from the mid-1980s. (I'm guessing Lesley had to handle this loudly humming footage at arm's length, through some kind of safety panel.) Yet even Cole's floaty, ethereal narration has the effect of opening up a window and letting some air and sunlight in on a subject that might initially strike you as technical or academic. This very smart, brisk briefing generates an energy all its own, before sending you out recalibrating your beliefs; it's both a lively watch and one of those rare docs you could usefully forward to an MP.
The Atom: A Love Affair is streaming via Curzon Home Cinema from tomorrow.