Review: Radium Girls — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

Radium Girls

⭐⭐⭐

Run Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

Stars: Joey King, Abby Quinn

Writers: Ginny Mohler, Brittany Shaw

Directors: Lydia Dean Pilcher, Ginny Mohler

In Theaters and on Streaming Services

Think they treat you badly at work? Consider the subjects of Radium Girls, an infuriating and engrossing drama based on the true story of 1920s factory women who endured deadly radiation poisoning — contracted from the dabs of fluorescent paint they applied to watch faces day after day, year after year.

In history, the U.S. Radium Company employed hundreds of young women at its East Orange, NJ, plant, paying top wages for their painstaking hours tracing luminous radium paint onto the faces of watches and airplane instruments. To keep the paintbrush tips pointy, they were told to lick the brush between each number — the worst possible advice, as the highly radioactive paint was slowly absorbed into their bones and teeth.

“If you swallow any radium, it will make your cheeks rosy,” they were told.

To make matters worse, as one young woman after another fell to jaw cancer, the company doctor assigned them all with the same fictional diagnosis: untreatable syphilis. Of course, rather than face public humiliation, nearly all of them went to their graves quietly, thinking they’d had no one to blame but themselves.

All those lowlights are grimly enumerated here by co-directors Lydia Dean Pilcher and Ginny Mohler (Mohler also co-wrote the script with Brittany Shaw). The name of the offending company is changed to American Radium and the real-life drama’s primary characters are consolidated into two fictional sisters, Bessie and Josephine — heartbreakingly portrayed, respectively, by Joey King (Hulu’s The Act) and Abby Quinn (Little Women). Tentatively asserting their rights in a world where women have been voting for barely a decade, the sisters lean on each other for moral — and at times physical — support. The actresses bring just the right blend of defiance and vulnerability to the roles (although the illusion of living in a bygone era is sometimes thwarted by their decidedly Millennial speech patterns, particularly when they drop “t’s” from words like “but” and “important”).

If you want the full story, by all means read Kate Moore’s exhaustive 506-page account, Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, which teems with colorful, tragic characters and despicable corporate shills. The film, however, is an excellent and soul-stirring primer; a corporate horror story made all the more terrifying because it’s true. Spared the effects of radiation because she instinctively feels licking those brushes isn’t a good idea — and facing constant ridicule at work for that reason — Bessie watches with growing concern as Josephine’s teeth loosen and fall out. Her cheeks seem to suffer from constant sunburn, despite the fact that she’s inside all day. And when the oily company doctor (Neal Huff) arrives at the women’s home late one night with his scandalous diagnosis, they know for sure something is very wrong — Josephine’s never even had a boyfriend.

Plucky in that uniquely cinematic sense, the women get themselves a lawyer and try to enlist their co-workers to join them in a lawsuit against the company. But the money is too good and the work environment is relatively pleasant, so few want anything to do with the suit. In fact, many are openly hostile to the idea.

Eventually Radium Girls winds its way to a climactic courtroom scene. At this point, after having let the story unfold at a satisfying pace, the film hurtles into unrealistic overdrive: Events that in a real court would require months of wrangling unfold here in a matter of days. (In the actual proceedings, company lawyers cruelly dragged the matter out for years in hopes that the plaintiffs would die before they’d have to pay out a single penny.)

Reflecting the real-life resolution of the Radium Girls case, the film ends on a note that is neither stand-up-and-cheer nor shake-your-head-and-cry. For the most part, outrage is the order of the day in Radium Girls; anger that corporate greed could have so callously doomed loyal employees to protracted, painful deaths — and the nagging suspicion that there remain quarters of our world where things have not changed all that much.

Featured image: Still from Radium Girls (Juno Films)

Review: Radioactive — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

Radioactive

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Rating: PG-13

Run Time: 1 hour 49 minutes

Stars: Rosamund Pike, Sam Riley, Yvette Feuer, Aneurin Barnard

Writer: Jack Thorne

Director: Marjane Satrapi

Streaming on Amazon Prime

Tackling the life story of pioneering nuclear scientist Marie Curie, Rosamund Pike continues her recent explorations of tough-to-pin-down historic women — pithy females who tossed aside their cultures’ expectations and plunged stubbornly forward, either failing to hear the cries of objection or simply choosing to ignore them.

In A United Kingdom she played Ruth Williams, a London woman who defied the social norms of two countries when she married an African king in the late 1940s. She chain-smoked and growled her way through A Private War, painting an uncompromisingly coarse portrait of war correspondent Marie Colvin. And here in Radioactive, playing the Mother of the Atomic Age, Pike strikes yet another defiant pose as a woman who, despite her obvious brilliance, battles at every turn to make her mark in the male-dominated scientific world of the early 20th century.

It’s a startling performance that commands virtually every moment of the film’s run time, as Pike’s Curie runs into one institutional blockade after another.

Unmarried and fighting to keep her position at a Paris laboratory, in one early scene Curie storms into an all-male (of course) board meeting to demand more lab space — and ends up fired. Facing professional ruin, Pike’s face swims with conflicting emotions: fury, surprise, hurt, and dread fear. But even as her expressions flit from one state of mind to another, she seems to grow in stature to the point where the guys with the cigars — and we — begin to wonder if she’s going to leap at them from across the conference table.

So prickly is Pike’s Curie that we almost gasp in astonishment when she lowers her stoic resolve long enough — but just barely so — to fall in love with and marry Pierre Curie, an uncommonly open-minded fellow scientist (Sam Reilly, channeling the same suave charm that made him the perfect alt-world Mr. Darcy in 2016’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies).

Iranian director Marjane Satrapi — Oscar-nominated for her animated film Persepolis — knows she’s got a good thing going in Pike. When’s she’s not simply turning the whole film over to her star she’s taking devilish delight in depicting the world’s turn-of-the-century radiation mania — depicting with dark glee such products as radioactive toothpaste and chewing gum. Of course, the fun is all over when Marie, Pierre, and their fellow scientists start coughing up blood, signaling the awful realities of unchecked radiation.

Screenwriter Jack Thorne (Wonder, The Aeronauts) makes the risky choice of repeatedly flash forwarding to the decades following Curie’s death, reminding us of the world her discoveries created, from the atomic bomb to radiation therapy to Chernobyl. Indeed, at times he literally injects Madame Curie herself into these scenes, a ghostly witness to her complicated legacy. It doesn’t always work — Curie’s life is compelling enough without resorting to a tricked-up narrative — but the ploy does serve to remind us that although the events here unfolded more than a century ago, some of the modern world’s most profound dilemmas harken back to that dusty, irradiated laboratory in pre-World War I Paris.

In any case, all is forgiven whenever Pike is on the screen. History is always more fun when filmmakers leave the rough edges intact, and Radioactive does just that — thanks mainly to the superb work of an actor who thrives on showing those edges in stark, supremely human, relief.

Featured image: Rosamund Pike in Radioactive (Photo Credit: Laurie Sparham; StudioCanal/Amazon Studios)

Three Mile Island’s Effect on Nuclear Power in the U.S.

Nuclear power remains a tricky subject in the minds of many Americans. While there are environmental benefits to well-managed nuclear power, such as the lack of emissions associated with other forms of energy, many have concerns based on waste containment and storage issues and accidents that have largely occurred outside the United States, like the Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi disasters. Today, the U.S. has 60 nuclear power plants with a combined 99 reactors spread across 30 states; those units produce around 19.7% of the country’s electricity and nearly 60% of our emission-free energy. And yet, the progression to more widespread use was almost completely brought to a standstill by one of the most notorious nuclear-related accidents in the world. Though not remotely on the scale of Chernobyl or the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, the Three Mile Island incident 40 years ago this week seriously slowed down the use of nuclear energy in the United States.

The first unit (Unit 1) of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station went active in 1974. It takes its name from its location, an island three miles down the Susquehanna River from Middletown, Pennsylvania. Unit 2 came online near the end of 1978.

On March 28, 1979, Unit 2 experienced a malfunction in its cooling system. This led to what’s called a “partial meltdown” of the reactor’s core, which is the part of the reactor that holds the nuclear fuel components. Typically, large amounts of heat come from the reactions in the nuclear material; this heat, plus the water that cools it, produces a volume of steam that feeds into a turbine generator to make electricity. In this case, the core became too hot, making one of the elements literally melt; that, in turn, sparked the release of both radioactive krypton-85 gas and iodine-131 into the environment around the station.

On the fortunate side, the quantity of krypton-85 that escaped was much larger than the iodine-131, which can be significantly more dangerous when not properly contained (such as when it’s used in nuclear medicine applications, like thyroid treatments). Nevertheless, more than 2 million people in the area were exposed to a minor amount of radiation as a result of the meltdown. The United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission fact sheet on the accident offers an explanation of what that exposure means. It explains that the people “received an average radiation dose of only about 1 millirem above the usual background dose. To put this into context, exposure from a chest X-ray is about 6 millirem and the area’s natural radioactive background dose is about 100-125 millirem per year for the area.”

Poster for the China Syndrome
The China Syndrome depicted events leading to a possible catastrophic meltdown. (©Columbia Pictures/Sony)

The impact on the American people and their view of nuclear energy was swift and immediate. In a massive coincidence, the film The China Syndrome, about a nuclear meltdown, had been released less than two weeks before the event. The movie was a critical and financial success, and the looming specter of what could have happened in real-life combined with the unsettling nature of the film to sharply turn the public’s opinion on nuclear power toward the negative. The subsequent amalgam of scared investors, motivated activists, and nervous politicians led to the cancellation of dozens of possible reactor openings in the wake of Three Mile Island. In fact, no new reactors were added to already-existing U.S. power plants between 1977 and 2013; however, enough new plants were built in other locations between 1979 and 2007, including the 47 reactors that had been approved for construction prior to 1977, to dramatically increase the amount of electricity derived from nuclear power in the States. Tension over nuclear power was reignited in following the tsunami-inflicted meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi in 2011. While efforts to build more plants continue, a number of the projects have had to deal with financial issues (some going back to the Great Recession 10 years ago) and various construction delays.

Unit 2 has been closed ever since, with the full clean-up operation not completed until 1993. Fortunately, as reported by the NRC, “comprehensive investigations and assessments by several well respected organizations, such as Columbia University and the University of Pittsburgh, have concluded that in spite of serious damage to the reactor, the actual release had negligible effects on the physical health of individuals or the environment.” Today, Unit 1 of Three Mile Island is still in operation, although it faces closure at the end of this year if financial problems are not resolved.

Featured image: Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in 1979. (U.S. Department of Energy photo; Wikimedia Commons via Public Domain)