‘Downwind’: A Timely Chaser For ‘Oppenheimer’

This documentary traces the effects of the U.S. military detonating 928 nuclear bombs in Nevada.
Mark Jackson
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In wake of “Oppenheimer,” 2023’s hugely successful summer blockbuster about the creation of the atomic bomb, “Downwind” is a sobering and highly apropos documentary to follow it up with.
Add “Downwind” to the long list of films like “Erin Brockovich,” “Dark Waters,” and many documentaries about sneaky chem-corporation/military industrial complex/government-spawned environmental crimes, featuring toxic substances leaking into places they should not be and causing cancer. And the subsequent cover-ups fueled by the lure of filthy lucre.

Martin Sheen narrates. Here’s the gist: “Through nuclear testing, the United States population was exposed to nearly three times the total radiation dose of the Chernobyl disaster.” Think about that for a minute.

Actor Martin Sheen (foreground) is arrested during a protest near a nuclear-weapons test facility in Nevada in 1988. The image is featured in the documentary "Downwind," which Sheen narrates. (Backlot Docs)
Actor Martin Sheen (foreground) is arrested during a protest near a nuclear-weapons test facility in Nevada in 1988. The image is featured in the documentary "Downwind," which Sheen narrates. (Backlot Docs)

Testing! Testing!

In 1938, Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner, Otto Robert Frisch, and Fritz Strassmann became the first scientists to recognize that the uranium atom, when bombarded by neutrons, would actually split. Military scientists immediately knew the atomic bomb was feasible. They also had a pretty good idea of the Armageddon-level potential the bombs contained. However, the military wanted its investments to be based on more than conjecture.

The Hiroshima and Nagasaki detonations yielded extensive and useful data, but still didn’t dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s. South Sea islands testing was expensive. “Hmmm! Where can we blow stuff up with atomic bombs whenever we feel like it? How about Nevada?!” And so from 1951 to 1992, the U.S. military dropped 928 bombs.

Nine. Hundred. And. Twenty. Eight. Atomic. Explosions. Inside America.
The closed gate of the Nevada National Security Site, where 928 nuclear weapons tests have been performed. The gate is seen in the documentary "Downwind." (Backlot Docs)
The closed gate of the Nevada National Security Site, where 928 nuclear weapons tests have been performed. The gate is seen in the documentary "Downwind." (Backlot Docs)
A female interviewee says words to the effect: Why 928? What did they know at number 927 that was significantly different than number 12? Or number 56? It’s boys-with-toys, basically. It’s the military industrial complex. She’s not wrong.

America-Soviet Similarities

“Downwind” highlights several things that the U.S. and Soviet nuclear weapons programs had in common. Like the communist Soviets, the United States detonated atomic bombs on land belonging to indigenous minorities; which in America’s case happened to be the Western Shoshone tribe.

The United States also pulled a classic, “Nothing to see here, moving right along folks” attitude, as a façade to the deadly doings, although it knew perfectly well how it was affecting the population, due to a spate of studies. This population was given the name “downwinders,” as in, being downwind of atomic fallout.

A government document that eventually became public refers to downwinders (essentially cowboys, Indians, and Mormons) as being a “low-use segment of the population.” It was also stated that it would be good to study the effects of fallout on these people “because they are more like us than mice.”

Each test was given a name. Most of them were names of Native-American tribes. Although the United States had each suggested test-name checked by a sensitivity panel to make sure they weren’t offensive to anyone, this was long before the Washington Redskins were changed to the Washington Commanders.

America-Soviet Differences

The trickle-down, genetic legacy of bombing in both countries is similar. But whereas Kazakh victims of Soviet experimentation weren’t newsworthy, Hollywood shot westerns on Shoshone land, and America’s biggest star, John Wayne, died (arguably) of stomach cancer due to fallout in 1979.
Wayne’s son Patrick, also an actor, talks about visiting Nevada sets with his dad, and watching horses kicking up red, fall-out saturated dust. It turns out, after filming The Conqueror“ in 1956 in the near vicinity of the atomic testing range at Yucca Flat, Nevada, 91 members of that cast and crew later got cancer, including costar John Wayne and director Dick Powell. This was almost 2.5 times the national average at the time. 
Hollywood actor Michael Douglas is interviewed in "Downwind." (Backlot Docs)
Hollywood actor Michael Douglas is interviewed in "Downwind." (Backlot Docs)
Another Hollywood actor, Michael Douglas, who starred in the 1979 nuclear-meltdown movie “The China Syndrome,” talks about how, shortly after the movie wrapped, the infamous Three Mile Island nuclear plant partial meltdown occurred, almost as if the movie had prophesied it. Later on in the late ‘80s, Douglas became interested in his famous father Kirk’s European roots and tried to find the village Kirk hailed from. Like the Pretenders song “My City Was Gone,” Belarus-born Kirk’s city had been downwind of Chernobyl. Michael Douglas has campaigned against nuclear weapons ever since.

Other Anecdotes

Downwinder Claudia Petersen, who looks and speaks uncannily like Martha Stewart, tells about how she heartbreakingly lost seven family members to different forms of cancer.
Claudia Peterson, a St. George medical social worker who has seen many relatives die of cancer, is one of the people interviewed in the documentary "Downwind." (Backlot Docs)
Claudia Peterson, a St. George medical social worker who has seen many relatives die of cancer, is one of the people interviewed in the documentary "Downwind." (Backlot Docs)

Ian Zabarte, head man of the Western Shoshone people, remembers children playing in the bomb-fallout saturated landscape, and how radiation sickness affected his grandfather, who developed an immune disorder that caused his skin to fall off.

Native American activists Ian Zabarte (L), and Kevin Kamps hold a banner protesting nuclear weapons near the Nevada National Security Site, where 928 nuclear weapons were tested, in "Downwind." (Backlot Docs)
Native American activists Ian Zabarte (L), and Kevin Kamps hold a banner protesting nuclear weapons near the Nevada National Security Site, where 928 nuclear weapons were tested, in "Downwind." (Backlot Docs)

Archival promotional videos involving rats, dogs, and pigs destroy America’s claims of ignorance about the effects of radiation on humans, but as easy as it is to become outraged by all this, the responsibility is ultimately international—24 U.S. tests were conducted jointly with the UK.

What’s utterly inconceivable and does incite outrage is the reminder that there are politicians right now, who, knowing what testing has done to the public health, would like nothing more than to resume testing in the Nevada test area, regardless.

The Fallout

An atomic bomb mushroom cloud in "Downwind." (Backlot Docs)
An atomic bomb mushroom cloud in "Downwind." (Backlot Docs)

“Downwind” supports its case with evidence, largely taken from the U.S. military’s own files. If this review of “Downwind” still doesn’t make the subject matter feel relevant to you, because you live in, say, Peru, watch the film and see the explanations and depictions of how cancer patterns worldwide are clearly correlated to nuclear testing and accidents.

And consider the hubris. The Titan Prometheus was chained to a rock by the Greek gods and tortured for all eternity—for giving humans the forbidden gift of fire. The gods knew humans couldn’t handle fire. Not the atomic type, in any case. We might have stopped the Japanese in their tracks with the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, but as one interviewee in “Downwind” puts it, “We’re all downwinders now.” Was it all worth it? We got our freedom—along with a generous side-dish of cancer.
Stopping Japan was necessary; Japanese culture contains, like Navy SEAL culture, a never-quit mindset; they were never going to stop coming after us. But why did the military not stop testing after proof of what radiation does to humans?
The government is currently spending 63 billion dollars annually on nuclear weapons development. The radioactive material that escaped Pandora’s box into the atmosphere, land, and groundwater, has a long life. Strontium-90 and cesium-137 have half-lives of about 30 years (half the radioactivity will decay in 30 years). Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years. What does that mean? It means we’re all downwinders.
As a film critic with a personal training sideline, I highly recommend seeing “Downwind” to get clarity on what we’re all up against, and also taking up a Chinese energy practice, such as Tai Chi or Qigong. If done diligently, these practices fortify the human immune system against disease—even radiation exposure—like an atomic bomb-stopping bunker. It’s a far more effective choice than, say, crawling under our desks and hoping for the best.
“Downwind” can be rented on Apple TV+, Vudu, and Amazon Prime Video.
Movie poster for "Downwind." (Backlot Docs)
Movie poster for "Downwind." (Backlot Docs)
‘Downwind’ Director: Mark Shapiro, Douglas Brian Miller Starring: Michael Douglas, Martin Sheen, Lewis Black, Mary Dickson MPAA Rating: Documentary Running Time: 1 hour, 34 minutes Release Date: Aug. 18, 2023 Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Mark Jackson is the chief film critic for The Epoch Times. In addition to the world’s number-one storytelling vehicle—film, he enjoys martial arts, weightlifting, Harley-Davidsons, vision questing, rock-climbing, qigong, oil painting, and human rights activism. Mark earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy from Williams College, followed by a classical theater training, and has 20 years’ experience as a New York professional actor, working in theater, commercials, and television daytime dramas. He recently narrated the Epoch Times audiobook “How the Specter of Communism is Ruling Our World,” which is available on iTunes and Audible. Mr. Jackson is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic.
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