Hiroshima. Nagasaki. Mercury, Nevada?
With the recent motion picture release of Oppenheimer, many have found a new or renewed interest in the Manhattan Project and the era of American history when the country was working to create the first atomic bomb. However, one CC alum has been thinking about these events for much longer and sees things a bit differently than the heroic Hollywood portrayal.
Mark Shapiro ’86 has spent the past three plus years, and all the funds on one very warped credit card, producing and co-directing Downwind, a film that exposes the U.S. government’s 928 nuclear detonations from 1951-1992 at the Nevada Test Site (NTS), also known as the Nevada National Security Site, and the impact of radioactive fallout on countless communities and the environment. The film features two-time Oscar-winner Michael Douglas, political satirist Lewis Black, and is narrated by anti-nuke activist and multi-award-winning actor Martin Sheen. Matthew Modine of the small screen hit Stranger Things is the film’s executive producer, and the legendary animator Bill Plympton contributed original animation.
“When we embarked on this journey of discovery, we wanted to understand exactly who was impacted then and now by the 928 atomic blasts at NTS,” says Shapiro. “We also demanded to know why and how the tests were conducted, since winds dispersed radioactive fallout from atmospheric blasts (mushroom clouds) and underground testing (venting) in a seemingly unpredictable manner, determined by a capricious weather forecast.”
Our film intends to expose a tragic and largely forgotten chapter of United States history and the ongoing health consequences for Americans and global citizens. It addresses the current state of Downwinders [and] the hopeful expansion of a government compensation program…”Mark Shapiro ’86
During his research, Shapiro read that the United States government referred to Downwinders, the name given to those who live and work closest to the explosion site, as a “low use segment of the population.” He was also made aware that the location of the Nevada Test Site rests on sacred Western Shoshone land. But, for more than 40 years, the government conducted atomic weapons tests that obliterated the environment and exposed people and livestock to deadly fallout. Generations of people are still getting sick. He had to use his voice, or rather, his camera, to do something about it.
“Using a lens metaphor, we initially focused on St. George, Utah, 135 miles east of the Nevada Test Site and a city that had experienced tremendously high leukemia and cancer rates,” says Shapiro. “St. George was also the location for a number of Hollywood Western blockbusters, including the Howard Hughes epic The Conqueror in 1956, where half the cast and crew died of cancer, including John Wayne, who we viewed as a metaphor for iconic America: brazen, yet vulnerable.”
As Shapiro and his team delved deeper into the topic and looked at the bigger picture, they discovered that fallout from worldwide nuclear weapons testing was distributed globally and haphazardly. Despite a moratorium on testing, the Nevada Test Site remains operational and off-limits with the possibility that testing could resume any day.
“Our film intends to expose a tragic and largely forgotten chapter of United States history and the ongoing health consequences for Americans and global citizens. It addresses the current state of Downwinders, the hopeful expansion of a government compensation program called the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, and the continued tenacity of heroic activists who won’t be stopped in their pursuit of government accountability and humanitarian justice.”
The film has already won several awards, including “Best Feature Documentary” at the 2023 Hollywood Gold Awards, “Outstanding Excellence Award” at the 2023 Documentaries Without Borders Film Festival, and “Best Environmental Documentary” at the 2023 Melbourne Documentary Film Festival.
Downwind premiered August 18 in select theaters and is now available through video on-demand, including major platforms.