Three plutonium triggers a day, 720 bombs a year, many of them thousands of times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Japan. That was the output of the Rocky Flats Plant during its heyday—a factory that produced nuclear weapons for almost four decades without one detonation during wartime. Its method of destruction was quieter, less explosive, more sinister.

The above numbers come courtesy Judy Irving, narrator and co-director of Dark Circle, a documentary produced in 1982 and winner of the Best Documentary Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Running a brisk 82 minutes, Dark Circle is engrossing filmmaking about a subject more terrifying than a Hollywood horror film—horror that’s lost none of its potency in the intervening 38 years.

It’s little surprise to learn that though PBS approved Dark Circle for broadcast in 1985, it was pulled from the channel one year later. According to a Chicago Tribute article from 1986, the reason for the cancellation was one-sided bias: “It’s an advocacy film and it does not provide any opportunity for any viewer who is coming to the subject for the first time to draw any conclusion other than those which the producers hold,” Barry Chase, vice president of news and public affairs of PBS said. He’s right: Irving and her co-directors (Christopher Beaver and Ruth Landy) have no interest in exploring or finding the positive sides of nuclear power. As pointed out in the documentary, there are enough nuclear bombs on the planet to destroy every last living creature. If two nuclear-armed countries were to go to war, it would not be mutually assured destruction; it would be mutually assured suicide.

Though the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan on Aug. 6 and 9 (75 years ago this month) are discussed in detail, the majority of Dark Circle focuses on Rocky Flats and the surrounding neighborhood of single-family homes. While children play on a pile of—what we assume is plutonium polluted—dirt, Irving talks with the mothers. The rates for cancer are higher here. Not too far away, a farmer leads Irving around his animal pens, showing him chicken and ducklings that failed to hatch or died suddenly or were born with defects due to radiation poising. 

Then there’s the archival footage of military bomb tests. The Washington Post estimates more than 2,000 atomic bombs have been detonated since 1945, all for research purposes and mostly by the U.S. and Soviet Union. In one such test, scientists tested out the effectiveness of protective coats from a nuclear blast on unsuspecting pigs because their skin is similar to ours. The coats did little for the pigs. Worse, we’re told pigs can survive despite suffering third-degree burns over 80% of their skin.

There’s a lot of material presented in Dark Circle you probably know, but I’d be willing to bet that that tidbit about the pigs is new to you, too. And if it wasn’t, that unholy squeal accommodating the blast sure is. There’s plenty of footage of human suffering at the hands of atomic blasts that’ll sink your heart, but there’s something about subjecting animals to this horror that feels all the more cruel.

It’s been 38 years since Dark Circle, and the world has more or less sided with Irving and company. It’s hard to imagine a theater or TV channel blocking the doc based on one-sided bias now.

Rocky Flats was shut down in 1992. Over the next decade, the site was demolished and cleaned-up. In 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took over 4,000 acres of the land and established the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge. Google Maps lists it as “Good for kids.” Nearby, single-family neighborhoods spring up like weeds. Living along the Front Range is an expensive endeavor, and most will take any edge they can to get in on the market—even if that means playing a game of Russian roulette with your family’s health. There’s a scene toward the end of Dark Circle where one mother has decided to pack up her family and leave. But her home’s proximity to Rocky Flats made it difficult to sell. She did manage to find a buyer: another couple with children. Sometimes it feels like the circle is closed. Other times, not so much.

Dark Circle (1982)
Produced and directed by Judy Irving, Christopher Beaver, Ruth Landy
First Run Features, Not rated, Running time 82 minutes, Now playing at CU-Boulder’s International Film Series virtual theater

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