United States - 1989
Director- Peter Markle
Alliance Releasing Home Video, 1989, VHS
Runtime – 1 hour 38 min.
My buddy Daniel picked this up for me in Canada (hence the Canadian distributor) because he and I are both atomic science history nerds and he knows I like war flicks, so props to him. Director Markle also helmed a decent non-reactionary Vietnam flick BAT*21 starring Gene Hackman and Hot Dog The Movie, starring boobs and skiing, before he went on to a career primarily in TV. Estevez of course now trains children to ice skate and his dad is the President and ironically a traitor to his country. In any case this film addresses the very real issue of American atomic testing on its soldiers. For a real life look at this see the excellent documentary called Radio Bikini all of which Randywilharm has uploaded to YouTube.
Martin Sheen is haunted neurologist Alexander Brown, in Las Vegas to observe the surgical implantation of one of his newest devices. At a reception for the event a reporter and some vets approach him to confirm their story of radiation poisoning so they can collect disability payments. Flashback to 1956 where Emilio Estevez plays the young doctor Brown at the Nevada Test site to witness Operation Boom, (I made the name up, the on screen explosions are taken from archival footage) and to run personality tests on some exceedingly dumb GI’s (commanded by Joe Pantoliano) with whom he nevertheless sympathizes.
Hangin' out with his BI buddies at a bar, Estevez/Brown meets another scientist Sally Mathews (a young and stunning Lea Thompson) whom he impresses with his science nerd gee-whiz act.
Later they set up one of the infamous “test houses” that are so well known now (see also The Hills Have Eyes 2006). This is where the movie starts to get interesting because of the historical footage cleanly spliced into the narrative. The whole thing starts to get fairly eerie because (if you’re like me and have a nuclear war fetish) it casts a little “reality” over the proceedings, like this scene, which is obviously leading up to some archival footage.
Not so much with the kissing in the pool which follows, but I won’t complain about that too much since it is Lea Thompson. Estevez/Brown asks the bit actor GI’s more questions that they answer with practiced affectation, and regurgitating a bit of dry camaraderie he marches with them into the infantry trenches to participate in operation Boom 2. Despite Brown’s concerns, orders are to march from the trenches toward ground zero as the dust settles. Estevez/Brown still doesn’t believe that the Army is -as Sally insists- willfully using the men as guinea pigs.
While at base watching some test footage of actual pigs getting fried in operation Boom 3, Estevez/Brown and the grunts start to get a strange feeling of deja-vu. Again, the historical footage woven into all of these scenes gives the rest of the simpleminded made-for-TV pap an air of creepy legitimacy, like a rotten apple spoiling the whole barrel, only in reverse. Which is good, since it distracts me from pulling out my Korean and Cold War uniform books to critique the accuracy and go full-nerd.
Sheen/Brown is coming to terms with all this in Vegas by the way, after years of denial. Convinced all these years that she was sterile Brown’s wife blows up when it comes out that it was his radiation roasted nuts. That’s all it takes for his denial-house-of-cards to begin collapsing. But back at the science banquet just as he starts to come clean publicly and the disabled vets roll in all heartstrings and vindication, the credits scroll leaving this movie about just one guy assuaging his minor personal guilt, and fuck-all for the glow-in-the-dark veterans.
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These are a couple of YouTube videos of segments of the originalarchival footage used in Nighbreaker, the first one from teachertube being the house that is a well known image and the centerpiece of an establishing scene in the film. The second, uploaded by timboo is one that I hadn't seen before and is what really drives the moral agenda of the film home. Below is an alternate VHS cover I got from allmovies.com.