Richland (2023): living in the Fat Man’s shadow | Review

Clouds of steam belching from the towers of a nuclear facility.

Offering a poignant backdrop to Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer biopic, Irene Lusztig’s documentary Richland quietly examines the fallout from nuclear warfare.

Richland, WA, is the closest city to the Hanford Site, and Hanford is the place that made the plutonium that blew away Nagasaki on August 9th, 1945.

The plutonium was destined for “Fat Man”, one of two atomic bombs the US dropped on Japan. “Little Boy” had detonated over Hiroshima three days earlier, killing around 80,000 people. Fat Man killed another 40,000. The total death toll including radiation-linked illnesses is thought to be closer to 200,000.

What do you do with a legacy like that?

Living in the shadow of the bomb

Nagasaki is everywhere and nowhere in Irene Lusztig’s portrait of Richland; an off-camera event that won’t stand to be gazed at directly, or for too long. Instead, this documentary sifts the fallout back home in Washington state.

The Hanford nuclear facility was built as part of The Manhattan Project in 1943. The US Government bought up the surrounding land, carving out Richland as a commuter city for workers that same year.

Hanford produced weapons grade plutonium for over 40 years. But, like the moral certainty of the atomic bomb, that history is steeped in ambivalence.

For white residents, growing up in Richland was fun and financially secure; later those who worked at Hanford, or lived around it, became sick or died prematurely. When one woman visits the cemetery where her brother was buried in 1947, the camera pans along a full row of baby graves from the same year.

People got sick in Richland, just as they did in Nagasaki. There have been years of investigations and lawsuits. Everyone wants resolution. It’s hard to come by.

Before there even was a Hanford, indigenous tribes looked after this land (custodianship, not ownership, one elder explains). Then the government swooped in and, 70 years later, “the main part of Hanford can never be used by humans again”. Fat Man carried just 14 pounds of plutonium; Hanford sits on 56 million gallons of radioactive waste.

Indigenous families haven’t just been held back by losing the land. The war project swallowed resources, animals, and all the ingredients of a decent living. A white Richland resident recalls just two Black families in the city when she grew up, but there’s no mention of the Native American families or the scars they’re also grappling with.

Richland, forever twinned with Nagasaki

Weighing the costs of Hanford is a loaded question, a landmine of inquiry that can only tolerate the lightest touch.

Lusztig’s documentary is a rich mix of oral history and archive footage, but the trauma inherent in addressing the moral questions of the bomb leaves the film fragmentary at times, segregated according to experience and race. Its stories are fascinating and moving, but also awkward and fearful of deeper introspection.

One Richland woman says the city achieved “an amazing, terrible thing” … but that people prefer to drop the “terrible”. The high school mascot is still a letter R enveloped by a mushroom cloud.

Seventy years after Nagasaki, the war effort still has a hold on Richland. There’s a sense that questioning the bomb, even now, is un-American. One teen, born in the country to an immigrant family, is uncertain if school shirts should still feature the cloud. She ends by reiterating how proud she is to be American.

The US bombing of Japan is a circle we’ll never be able to square. It brought the second world war to an end and saved the lives of allied forces. But to do so, it extinguished 200,000 souls in an instant, many of them civilians. Nagasaki, while largely thriving, will take “another 100 years” to completely recover.

Richland is “proud of the cloud”, but also accepts the solemnity of the role forced onto it. But in the end, there are no answers. Seventy years on, the atomic sun is still blinding. Lusztig’s film is a fascinating portrait of how we shield ourselves from the enormity of our actions, and what it takes to believe in destiny.

Richland (2023), directed by Irene Lusztig

This film screened at Sheffield DocFest 2023

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Picture credit: Markus Distelrath