As part of a new Channel 4 documentary series, film-maker Leslie Whitehead found out how the citizens of Los Alamos, birthplace of the nuclear age, learned to stop worrying and love the bomb. Jim White reports
Friday 07 July 1995
So they weren't there, in the place where the first big bang was manufactured in Robert Oppenheimer's kitchen, to pay silent witness to the victims of Hiroshima? "Hell, no, the Japs started the war with their sneaky attack on Pearl Harbor, and all we did was finish it," said the man, from behind a strangely unnerving combination of facial hair and spinal support. "Remember, don't mess with the US."
That's the thing Woodhead discovered about Bomb Country: nothing is quite as you expect. Those delightful, snow-tipped mountains over there? They house most of the United States nuclear arsenal, buried in the sandstone. That bland suburban street? It's where the scientists, who discovered how to blow up the world using only the contents of the garden shed, lived. The soliders who have their fingers permanently poised over the trigger? As nice a bunch of guys as you could meet.
"When you meet the military, the guys who will, in the event of conflict, flick the switch, it's an unexpected thing," says Woodhead. "They are the most charming, cultured, educated, liberal, intelligent people. As a sad old leftie ban-the-bomber, I found that reassuring."
Woodhead went deep into the heart of the thermonuclear mid-West with Reggie Nadelson, the New York-based wit, to film the opening piece for a new series on Channel 4, Travels with My Camera. He took with him only a Hi-8 camera, a sort of super home video, no bigger than a paperback. For Woodhead, this was a liberating experience. Used to lugging endless quantities of equipment and technicians around the globe, he found that when he was wandering around with no more kit than a tourist might take on holiday, the people he met opened up in a way he had not experienced before. And, despite the majesty of the landscape, and the scale of the weaponry, it is the people that make Bomb Country the most bizarre territory this side of Bognor during the annual Birdman contest.
Woodhead, a veteran of ITV's Disappearing World, initially thought that, what with the end of the cold war and the start of the peace dividend, he would be making another film about a threatened environment, a culture in decline. He found instead a community poised indelicately between serving a military about to be bolstered by the rightward surge in American politics, and rapidly becoming part of the heritage trail. At Trinity Site, the place where, after the first atomic explosion on 16 July 1945, the desert sand instantly transmogrified into glass, he filmed picnickers toasting each other with warm fizz. "Is the glass glowing yet?" asks one giggling holiday-maker.
He filmed, too, a man who bought all the equipment used by the Manhattan Project and now sells it to Hollywood sci-fi movie-makers from a jam-packed warehouse. "Hey," says the man, lovingly handling what appears to be a wholesale-sized hair-drier. "This is the first ever Geiger counter." And he filmed Edward Teller, the original Dr Strangelove, who can list at the top of his extensive scientific CV that he invented the thermonuclear bomb, and who is now repentant that the bomb was dropped.
"I told them," says Teller in his best Peter Sellers voice. "Just explode the bomb in the atmosphere three miles above Tokyo Bay. The Emperor would have seen the flash and stopped the war immediately. But hey, they never listened to me."
Woodhead also takes his camera inside some of the bases where warheads sufficient to blow up the entire world several thousand times over lie ready and primed. This was not by dint of a fancy piece of investigative journalistic camerawork, smuggling his mini-camera under the wire. It was because the military let him in.
"They have this unusual job description which says, 'If we haven't had to work today we have done our job'," Woodhead says. "They are rather proud of their record and they let you in to share it."
Not, of course, that you can believe everything they tell you. Down at Trinity Site, Woodhead's mini-camera records a military public relations woman explaining that nuclear fall-out is no real threat to life or limb.
"Listen, there is radioactivity in everything," she says. "There is even radioactivity in a passionate embrace." So that's what they meant by kissing your ass goodbye.
'Travels with My Camera: Adventures in Bomb Country', Mon 9pm C4
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