While the majority of its subject matter relates to events that happened decades ago, BBC’s documentary Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise is as relevant as any contemporary documentary. The inauguration of Donald J. Trump brings anxiety over his temperament and fitness to control the United States’ nuclear arsenal (along with Rick Perry’s nomination to the Energy Secretary post, a man who lacks an understanding of what the Energy Department does). The main draw of Wednesday night’s screening of the film was Scottish post-rock band Mogwai, the men behind the music, providing a live score of Atomic.
Performing as a five-piece, the Glaswegian experimental act contributed to the foreboding atmosphere of Cousins’ bleak mosaic of archived footage. However, the opening sequence of Atomic, propelled by the stirring, horn-infused “Ether,” expressed the promise and optimism of the nuclear age’s dawning. That early uplift would abruptly dissipate.
The unrelenting, mechanized futurism of “SCRAM” pushed spliced-together clips ever-closer to the brink of Nagasaki’s and Hiroshima’s inevitable fate at the hands of “Fat Man” and “Little Boy.” A disembodied voice counted, first in factors of ten but eventually to each agonizing second, down to that awful conclusion before Mogwai suffocated the audience with a squall of deafening noise. The inescapable sound invaded every crevice of the brain, evoking the feeling of being helplessly obliterated into billions of atoms by the most horrifying of creations.
Atomic would move on to address several topics relating to the nuclear era like Chernobyl, Cold War tensions, modern scientific imagery and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. The film continually came back to a single theme: humans had one unifying bond, the planet earth, and nuclear war was an unprecedented threat to our very existence. Other highlights included the John Carpenter-esque horror of “Little Boy,” the waving crescendos of “Tzar” (a song that shares a title with the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated) and the program’s stirring conclusion of “Fat Man.”
The ambitious, narrator-less construction of Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise makes it admittedly problematic from a storytelling standpoint. But as it demonstrates the drastic polarization of positive and negative results from the nuclear age, Mogwai’s spine-tingling instrumental score elevates the storytelling in a way few compositions are able. All in all, the film makes for must-watch programming, and it’s no surprise that this publication found Mogwai’s Atomic score to be one of the best albums of 2016.
Fat Man 2
Pripyat (no drums)
Are You a Dancer?
Fat Man 3