Half Life

Director: Dennis O’Rourke
Screenwriters: Dennis O’Rourke

Institute History

  • 1986 Sundance Film Festival


Half Life, bound to be one of the most important documentaries of 1986, carries the ironic subtitle “A Parable for the Nuclear Age.” Yet the parable is a true of and haunts our past, present and future. The subject of Half Life is the history and effects of nuclear testing in Marshall Islands, a tiny group of atolls in the mid-Pacific, and how many of the islanders have come to suffer from radio active poisoning. Had Half Life presents evidence that the U.S. government intentionally chose not to evacuate several populated atolls in order to establish the islanders as a control group, human guinea pigs, to test the long and short term effects of nuclear fallout.

The construction of Half Life is simple, relying on O’Rourke’s own filmed interviews with the islanders today, and remarkable collection of archival material, much of it declassified Atomic Energy Commission propaganda films. this juxtaposition laces the film with bitter ironies. Half Life is a careful, controlled and dramatic film, moving beyond the confines of documentary cinema to become an engaging theatrical feature. In context of “Bomb Culture,” what Atom Cafe did for laughs, Half Life does for politics and morality. It deserves widespread exposure, and certainly an Oscar nomination.

Screening Details


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