Deconstructing HBO’s Pu-239

By Hugh Gusterson | November 27, 2007

Like its recent documentary White Light/Black Rain, HBO’s latest original movie, Pu-239, provides a thought-provoking examination of the nuclear age.

Ever since the Bomb's creation, U.S. television stations have done their bit to keep it out of sight. HBO, however, is becoming the exception to this rule. In August, the cable network premiered White Light/Black Rain, a fine documentary (see my review) about Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors. Now comes Pu-239, a moody drama written by Scott Burns (The Bourne Conspiracy) and produced by George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh.

The central figure in Pu-239 is Timofey, an employee at a decaying Russian nuclear facility. A decent, sensitive man with a philosophical turn of mind, he occasionally addresses the viewer about radiation exposure levels, explains how U.S. watch-painters died of cancer because they kept licking their radium-tipped paintbrushes, and uses radioactive decay as a metaphor for the human condition. After years of fruitlessly warning his managers about the plant's poor maintenance, in the midst of a criticality incident in which leaking welds vent radioactive steam, he sees the infamous radioactive blue flash that every nuclear worker dreads. He knows he is now a dead man walking. While the plant managers set about covering up the accident, Timofey, with only a few days to live, asks for compensation that can be used to take care of his family. When plant managers fire him instead, in desperation, he steals 100 grams of plutonium 239, the core ingredient of a nuclear weapon, and sets off for Moscow in search of a buyer.

"He would never do that," says his disbelieving wife when she hears about the missing plutonium. "Who knows what a man in his situation would do?" a colleague responds.

In Moscow, Timofey becomes entangled with Shiv, the movie's other main character. Shiv is a young, incompetent mafioso. He makes a living by stealing windshield wipers, pimping his girlfriend, and shaking down small traders for protection money. Just before he meets Timofey, he and his fellow thugs, misreading a "7" for a "1," burn down the wrong store. Starkov, the Mafia boss to whom the owner of the smoldering store pays protection, has lost face. Shiv has one day to find $6,000 for Starkov, or he will be killed.

So the film presents us with the intertwined fates of two desperate men–one a man of science, the other a man of petty violence, both under a death sentence. Timofey, already showing signs of radiation poisoning, will certainly die for his bosses' mistakes. Shiv will probably die because his mistake harmed his boss. Their only hope–for Shiv to live and for Timofey's family to thrive after his death–is the canister of plutonium powder strapped to Timofey's body. They have one day to find a buyer.

The power of the ensuing drama lies in the way it compels viewers, perversely, to root for Timofey as he seeks $30,000 for plutonium that he says will find eager buyers in Afghanistan or North Korea. Trapped in a Hobbesian world without justice or fairness, desperate to provide for his family, he is a decent man who feels compelled to endanger millions out of a sense of obligation to those he loves–surely an apt parable for the nuclear age.

"This is hard to understand: How a thing can be two things at once?" Timofey tells the viewer in one of a number of somber musings. "Women, children, and light can be two things at once–a particle and a wave." Timofey also is two things at once. He is doing a terrible thing, and yet, he is the hero of the film and the only character who treats those around him with decency. Are we being told that the Mafia criminals we despise for their petty acts of wanton brutality are comparatively harmless while the really dangerous people are the educated, rational ones we like and respect? Or that good people–trapped in the nuclear machinery and following a compelling logic in the bubble around their own lives–end up doing terrible things?

Ultimately, Timofey finds that it's more difficult than he thought to sell plutonium on the black market. Shiv, who pronounces "Pu" as "pooh," only dimly understands it. Shiv asks to see the plutonium powder–as if he would be able to verify its power by looking at it. Timofey has to explain how dangerous it would be to open the canister strapped to his chest. When Shiv tries to interest the mafiosi above him in buying it, they are clearly out of their depth. So the plutonium enters into the games of murder and intimidation of the Russian underworld as a substance that none of the players truly understand.

At the end of the film, when two hoodlums come into possession of Timofey's canister, they mistake the contents for cocaine and snort it, thus entering the annals of cinema history as two of the most expensive and exotic accidental suicides ever.

This is the enduring image of the film: a group of ignorant, greedy, shortsighted men who live by violence in possession of a substance–the supreme product of scientific rationality–whose power and danger they do not understand. Their crass ignorance kills them.

A glib reading of the film is that its warning is about post-Soviet Russia and the dangers of nuclear material falling into the wrong hands in a country that is one great open-air black market. But is the warning only about Russia? The fundamental predicament in the film is human, not Russian: It is that plutonium exists in a world where watch-painters ignorantly kill themselves by licking their paintbrushes, where plant managers ignore safety warnings, where mistaking a "7" for a "1" sets a deadly chain reaction of events in motion, where powerful men see the killing of others as moves on a chessboard, and where even decent men may be willing to risk the deaths of those they do not know in order to provide for those they love. Timofey and Shiv are all of us.

Together, we make the world safer.

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