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Docurama presents
Radio Bikini (1987)

"An American came to Bikini. He said he was the most powerful man in the world. He said he wanted to drop a bomb on Bikini."
- Kilon Bauno

Review By: Rich Rosell  
Published: December 28, 2003

Stars: Kilon Bauno, John Smitherman
Director: Robert Stone

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (some disturbing images)
Run Time: 56m:02s
Release Date: December 30, 2003
UPC: 767685957134
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

In 1946, with the so-called Atomic Age in bloom, the United States government and military commenced with Operation Crossroads, a project that involved large-scale atomic bomb testing. The place was Bikini Atoll, a tiny island in the South Pacific and part of the Marshall Islands chain, and it was selected as the location for a series of test detonations meant to showcase and study the power and fury of the atomic bomb, and evaluate its after effects. The peaceful inhabitants of Bikini Atoll were rounded up and shipped off to another island, at the time not realizing that their native island would become an uninhabitable radioactive hell for over 40 years.

According to Radio Bikini, this immensely unsettling documentary, that would be the least of the problems that would eventually arise.

Documentarian Robert Stone earned a well-deserved Oscar® nomination in 1987 for Radio Bikini, and the ironic thing is that 95% of the now damning footage was shot by the U.S. government itself. The plan had been put in place to not just test a couple of atomic bombs at Bikini Atoll, but to document it in what was supposed to have become the largest propaganda film production in history, shot with over 750 cameras.

For reasons never entirely specified, the government film project was scrapped, but Stone, using the Freedom of Information Act during the early 1980s, acquired reels of unused footage, pieced together a narration-free documentary (from sailors relaxing by the beach to coating sheared goats with flashburn ointment), and capped things off with two absolutely heartbreaking interview segments.

One of the interviews is with Kilon Bauno, a Bikini chief, who describes in painful detail the day he and his fellow islanders were escorted away by the military, watching their huts and outriggers being burned as the transport crafts carted them off. Bauno had never even seen a camera before, so his confusion at the multiple takes done by the governmental film crew (much of which is shown by Stone) is staggering, to say nothing of when they tried to explain the reasoning for the bomb testing, that the hows and whats of the science involved was completely incomprehensible. The treatment of the inhabitants of Bikini Atoll, in hindsight all of these years later, just looks wrong, and though Stone is careful to straddle the line of how he paints the actions of the government, it should be emphasized that all of the film footage was shot by and for the government.

Stone's other powerful interview is with John Smitherman, a Naval enlisted man who was part of the massive contingent of U.S. military present at Bikini during the tests. Smitherman recalls how they simply followed orders from on high, and when asked by Stone about concerns from radioactive exposure, replies "we didn't know what the word was." And that is where the events become difficult to watch, as we see soldiers swimming and bathing in water that is rich in radioactivity. In what was either unwavering naïveté or unadulterated human experimentation, the exposure of thousands upon thousands of unconcerned sailors to massive doses of radiation is absolutely heartwrenching.

I really want desperately to believe it was naïveté on the government's part, which only makes things more disturbing to think that we were detonating atomic bombs without any real understanding of the prolonged exposure to high doses of radiation. Yet with global conflicts escalating, something had to be done, and decisions were made.

Watching Radio Bikini challenges that belief, and the ramifications of footage gathered up and assembled by Stone is unbelievably frightening.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Stone's 1987 film is presented by Docurama in its original 1.33:1 full-frame aspect ratio. With exception of some brief and slightly faded color interview footage from the early 1980s, Radio Bikini consists entirely of black & white and color footage culled from government archives. The quality varies a bit, but none of the sequences look particularly bad.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: Docurama has issued Radio Bikini in a simple 2.0 stereo mix, and considering the bulk of the audio comes from archival footage from the late 1940s, the limitations are hardly an issue. Clean and hiss-free, the presentation is simple and naturally effective.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
8 Other Trailer(s) featuring Bob Dylan: Don't Look Back, Sound and Fury, Brother's Keeper, Go Tigers!, Keep The River On Your Right, Porn Star, Lost In La Mancha, The Smashing Machine
1 Documentaries
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: Extras are minimal for Radio Bikini, but what's here is rather engaging and interesting. An episode of the Documentary Channel interview program, In Camera (46m:31s), features a one-on-one interview with director Robert Stone, I really liked Stone's honesty about any messages or political bent that might be construed from his documentaries ("If you want to learn history, read a book"), and that he tries to allow viewers to walk away with their own perceptions of events depicted in his films. The filmmaker chats about his approach to a given project, and specifically addresses how he came in possession of the archival footage used in Radio Bikini. Stone, who resembles a thinner Bob Wuhl, handles himself well during the interview segment, and this will more than suffice in lieu of a commentary track.

In addition to the usual Docurama trailers and a Robert Stone bio, the disc is cut into 12 chapters.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

You can make up your own mind as to whether or not the United States government were militaristic bullies, naïve men of science, or manipulating defenders of freedom (or some strange combo) after watching Radio Bikini.

It may run less than an hour, but it genuinely packs a powerfully disturbing and emotional one-two punch.

Highly recommended.


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