This hypnotic documentary by cinephile par excellence Mark Cousins takes a brave – but increasingly rewarding – abstract angle by seeking through aesthetic rather than conventional exposition to capture the strange, sensory ethos of the Atomic age (a period spanning approximately 1940-60 but having a far-reaching legacy up to the present day). Using Mogwai’s ethereal electronic soundtrack as his conduit, Cousins takes us through the history of the Atomic period through sound and image alone (there is no overt narration) – even trying ambitiously to suggest that splitting the atom and creating atomic weapons were not in themselves immediately malign developments but almost the end-game of a form of evolution, and symbol of mankind’s mastery over the properties of his planet. Hence Cousins finds in the famous, awe-inspiring images of atomic mushroom clouds a correlation with more common sights of proliferation in nature (a bud that grows, a flower that blooms, sperm that fertilises an egg).
It’s the politicisation and militarisation of this scientific development that Cousins laments: his sub-Eisenstein editing hammering home the human and environmental cost of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, and the Chernobyl reactor meltdown. Being such an impassioned filmmaker, there is the sense that Cousins has to work hard to rein in his clear authorial subjectivity and a tendency to over-determine the moral of his subject matter. That minor quibble aside, he has crafted a truly original and memorable tone poem to the haunting strangeness of our atomic times.
Mark Cousins is one of Britain’s most beloved and passionate cinephiles, and Atomic is further proof of his increasing proficiency and skill as a documentary filmmaker. It’s an ambitious, distinctive work that captures the sheer strangeness of the Atomic Age, a feast for the mind and the senses.