A fascinating thesis and accompanying history lesson that never quite makes sense as a feature-length film, Travis Wilkerson & Erin Wilkerson new documentary Nuclear Family is trying to do a lot of things all at once. Wilkerson, best known for the deeply personal and highly accomplished Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? continues to excavate his familial history while also interrogating the genocide of Indigenous peoples and the nuclear arms race, tying all of them together into a larger statement about the violence at the heart of the American mythos. It’s potent stuff, and persuasive. He begins his film with the recounting of a childhood memory, that of his mother’s profound fear of impending nuclear holocaust. There’s archival home movie footage of young Wilkerson and his parents visiting nuclear missile silos across the US, where his mother rants at the camera with a seething disdain for her government’s ludicrous Cold War theatrics. Wilkerson says that the road trip helped end his own nightmares about annihilation but now, following the 2016 elections, they have returned. As if to exorcise these demons once and for all, Wilkerson packs up his own family — wife Erin, co-director here, and their young daughters — to embark on another nuclear journey. The family traverses the southwest as Wilkerson’s constant voiceover narration relays information about the various types of missiles found at each site, their yields, and other facts and figures, making allowances for all manner of discursive tangents (some more interesting than others). Along the way, he also finds himself fascinated by the plight of Indigenous peoples during America’s violent western expansion. While visiting Colorado, Wilkerson is reminded of a film he made some years past, 2011’s Sand Creek Equation, detailing the brutal Sand Creek Massacre. In 1864, Colonel John Chivington led a brigade of men in slaughtering hundreds of Cheyenne and Arapaho along the banks of Sand Creek in the Colorado territory, and it’s here that Wilkerson declares that the “destruction of Native America and the threatened destruction of the world are the fingers of two hands, intertwined.” He intones a kind of poetic koan that will become a recurring mantra throughout the film: “seize the land with a gun. Turn the land into a gun. Point the gun at everyone’s head.”
This is clearly very personal stuff for Wilkerson, who’s trying to make sense of the world around him and his own neurosis in the only way he can think of: by turning it into art. But it’s a chore wading through 90 minutes of this. Wilkerson makes his points early and often, leading to endless repetitions despite the film’s relatively brief runtime. Wilkerson’s family never become characters in their own right, which is fine as far as it goes. But why then intersperse so many scenes of them amongst the more straightforward documentary style footage? It becomes padding. There’s also far too much stock footage of nuclear bombs exploding, and far too many edits juxtaposing his children’s cherubic faces with said footage. Long tangents seek to inform the audience about the dangers of our armed forces’ lax standards in operating and maintaining these various launch sites, but many of the stories he reports are well known and overly familiar. In fact, large swaths of Nuclear Family seem like they’d have been better served being presented as PowerPoint slides or a well-researched, long-form article. In other words, there’s not much here that’s formally interesting, nothing that really demands to be seen rather than simply be informed of. He tries to jazz up the proceedings, but there’s no way to make this particularly engaging outside of an academic curiosity, no matter how many cutesy-ironic songs Wilkerson plasters on the film’s soundtrack. There are strong ideas here, certainly, and Wilkerson’s righteous anger is both well-founded and appreciated. But too much of Nuclear Family feels like a disorganized mess of footage mashed together with only the vaguest organizational principle (whittling this down to half the length would be a step in the right direction). Here’s hoping that at least the process of making the film was cathartic.
Published as part of Prismatic Ground 2022 — Dispatch 1.