Review: Oliver Stone wants you to think about ‘Nuclear Now’ in new documentary

A scene from the Oliver Stone documentary "Nuclear Now."

With a recent Gallup poll indicating that American support for nuclear power is the highest it’s been in nearly a decade, and the news getting worse about our imminent reckoning with climate change, there may be no time like the present for a documentary to make the case for a maligned energy source — one more associated with war and catastrophe than lighting our homes — as the best solution for a grim future.

The question then is whether a dyed-in-the-wool rabble-rouser like Oliver Stone is the most persuasive guy for this argument when he’s more likely these days to make news for being controversial (he’s been called a Putin apologist); and his most recent feature being 2016’s ignored “Snowden.”.

But while Stone’s narrating voice at times betrays the world-weariness of a lifetime playing the cultural and geopolitical firebrand, his “Nuclear Now” is the Oscar-winning filmmaker in as positive a frame of mind as he can get about a meaningful subject — saving the planet with an elemental gift, one efficient, smoothly running reactor at a time.


An admitted one-time skeptic of nuclear turned near-giddy science nerd about it when interviewing a new generation of innovators and advocates, Stone is the last person you’d expect to be the optimistic opposite of the climate doc genre’s sacred scare text: “An Inconvenient Truth.” (Stone’s source material is his co-writer/scholar Joshua S. Goldstein’s “A Bright Future.”)

Of course, a veteran polemicist loves having an enemy to point to. In this case, it’s the fossil fuel companies, which he says have been wildly successful over the decades in undermining nuclear, and to a lesser extent (probably because of his soft spot for rebels), the generations of fear-spreading activists whom he sees as well-intentioned pawns.

To Stone, they’ve all done wrong by then-President Eisenhower’s upbeat “Atoms for Peace” speech in the early days of the Cold War. It’s somehow fitting that the “JFK” auteur who popularized Ike’s later, scary “military-industrial complex” glimpse of the future would now like to revive that world leader’s earlier attempt to ease our anxieties, in this case about uranium’s potential to bring everyone together.

And yet, strangely enough, it’s in the very topic of where our well-trained worry lies — high-profile nuclear plant disasters — where Stone is most convincing, making the case that the fatality count from Three Mile Island (zero), Chernobyl (around 30), and Fukushima (one) pales in comparison to the regular churn of deaths in the coal, biomass and oil industries. Though radiation is still a source of concern (and Stone does his best to downplay its health effect in small levels), nuclear has long been the simplest, safest option.

But it’s hard, as the director admits (and reminds us in his visuals), to get images from Hiroshima, movies like “Godzilla” and “The China Syndrome,” high-profile concerts (No Nukes) and jokes about three-eyed fish (Stone even clip-checks “The Simpsons”) out of our red-alert minds.

Maybe, though, what the years ahead portend from rising sea levels, worsening heat and extreme weather will overtake that nostalgic unease and open the door for smartly engineered nuclear reactors of all types and sizes to power our lives, as they already do in most of France. And with energy consumption on the rise around the world, Stone says, we’d be crazy not to take advantage of zero-emission nuclear’s readily scalable plant models.


The only real drawback to “Nuclear Now” as a credibly argued, it’s-been-there-all-along answer is what you might not expect from so routinely adventurous a filmmaker: a blah format so beholden to dry narration over cascading archival footage (and the occasional, awkwardly filmed interview).

It can feel more like an audio/visual presentation for a decarbonization conference than an impassioned, artful work building its message to a fever pitch. It posits the question, should a movie pushing for more nuclear energy run hot or cool?

‘Nuclear Now’

Not rated
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes
Playing: Starts April 28, Laemmle Monica, Santa Monica