directed by Judy Irving and Chris Beaver
USA 1982


I’m probably supposed to say that this nuclear alarmist documentary from 1982 seems out of date today. After all, it’s the 21st century now, and all the doomsayers who claimed that the human race couldn’t survive in the nuclear age have been proven wrong: the bomb hasn’t been dropped on anyone (at least not in a war) since 1945. Mutual assured destruction has been proven right, nuclear proliferation really does make us all safe.

Then I think about Carl Sagan’s Cosmic Calendar. In his book “The Dragons of Eden,” Sagan compressed the entire history of the universe into a single calendar year. The Big Bang occurred on Jan 1. The Earth formed on Sep 14. The first mammals appeared on Dec 26, with the first humans showing up sometime at about 10:30 PM on Dec 31. Humans first used an alphabet at 11:59:51 sec PM. At midnight Jan 1 of the new year (now) humans acquired “the means for self-destruction of the entire species.” We still haven’t ticked off that second. On the grand scale of things, we’re about a nanosecond (or maybe it’s a femtosecond, my math is weak) into the nuclear age: there’s no reason to be any less worried about nuclear weapons and nuclear power now than there was 25 years ago.

With that happy thought in mind, “Dark Circle,” directed by Judy Irving (“The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill” and Chris Beaver (no relationship to this website), arrives on DVD from era of “Damnation Alley” and “The Day After” as welcome reminder of the greatest threat to world peace. The documentary focuses initially on the Rocky Flats Nuclear Plant in Colorado, where plutonium triggers for bombs are manufactured. The plant executives and government officials assure the citizens that the plant is completely safe and that there is no possible risk to anyone working there or living nearby: nothing to see here, move along. Strange then that Rocky Flats was initially built in secret in 1952 and the first public evidence of its existence came from an accident which send a billowing cloud of thick smoke (no risk to the public, of course) into the air.

The filmmakers claim there is an unusual concentration of plutonium in the soil, more than 100x the “acceptable” level (yes, the government has determined there is an acceptable level of plutonium exposure for you and me) though “official” tests dispute this finding. Local farmer Lloyd Mixon doesn’t much convincing though, he only needs to look at his collection of mutant chicks that never quite hatched, some with brains on the outside, other with beaks turned inwards.

Raye Fleming is concerned too, as she’s raising her children in a housing development built on the very soil that may be contaminated by plutonium. She works for a group called Mothers for Peace who try to raise local awareness about the dangers of Rocky Flats. They run into stiff resistance both from residents who don’t want to think about the danger and workers who accuse them of being “commies” who hate American industry. Don Gabel used to be one of those guys, a factory worker at the plant. Healthy and vital at age 29, he is now a 30-year old cripple with a brain tumor and rapidly deteriorating body.

When the film sticks to Rocky Flats, it is powerful and eloquent, but the filmmakers can’t resist the urge to cover as much as possible. The middle section of the documentary needlessly expands its focus to include the aftereffects at Nagasaki and Hiroshima, a worthy subject for many other films, but badly misplaced here. However, the documentary does make effective use of government test footage in which nuclear generators are intentionally destroyed or bombs set off in the desert with military “volunteers” close on hand to observe and act as unwitting guinea pigs. The “Priscilla” test is both horrifying and morbidly hilarious: pigs are placed in aluminum foil suits to see if they can survive a nuclear blast. Some do, but with 80% or more of their bodies covered with third-degree burns. Somebody actually got paid to test whether pigs in a blanket can live through an atomic impact. It takes all kinds.

The Rocky Flats sequences have a poetic, chilling quality to them, though some of the writing is a bit lazy: “Four billion years ago, life appeared on the Earth.” Oh really, that’s not what they told me at the Creation Museum!

Christopher Long

Theatrical Release: Oct 8, 1982 (NY Film Festival)

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DVD Review: New Video - Region 1 - NTSC

Big thanks to Christopher Long for the Review!

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New Video

Region 1 - NTSC

Runtime 1:21:00

1.33:1 Original Aspect Ratio
Average Bitrate: 4.62 mb/s
NTSC 720x480 29.97 f/s

NOTE: The Vertical axis represents the bits transferred per second. The Horizontal is the time in minutes.


Audio Dolby Digital Stereo
Subtitles None
Features Release Information:
Studio: New Video

Aspect Ratio:
Fullscreen - 1.33:1

Edition Details:
• Nagasaki Journey
• Hidden Voices

DVD Release Date: 3/27/2007
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Chapters 12




The transfer is non-progressive, and the image quality can generously be described as mediocre. I suspect much of the blame lies with the source print.

The DVD includes two other short films also directed by Judy Irving and Chris Beaver. Nagasaki Journey (28 min.) details the story of two survivors of the bomb fifty years after its detonation. Hidden Voices (8 min.) brings a new perspective Karen Silkwood's death beyond that seen in the well-known feature film.

The DVD lists "Interview with the Filmmakers" as an extra, but I couldn't find any interview on the disc.

Rocky Flats was shut down several years after the making of "Dark Circle" due to safety violations. Today, the area is being decontaminated and converted into a wildlife refuge, presumably for nature enthusiast eager to spot the elusive three-headed, seven-eyed wild buck.

 - Christopher Long

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