Published on July 12th, 2015 | by Clint Davis
Radio Bikini 
Summary: A mighty powerful film packed into a small package. This document of America's 1946 atomic bomb tests turns out a real-life horror picture, with one of the most stunning ending reveals ever. The presentation is mostly dry as a high school film strip but its message is loud, clear and well conveyed.
NR | 56 min.
Director & Editor: Robert Stone
Distribution: New Video Group
Original Air Date: Oct. 11, 1988 on PBS
“The most explosive experiment in history is about to begin.”
A broadcaster is heard uttering those words to an unseen American audience in director Robert Stone’s Radio Bikini. It sounds like hyperbole but the man isn’t exaggerating. It’s July 1946 and a throng of excited reporters and servicemen are on a remote Pacific island, standing by to witness a nuclear bomb detonation.
The experiment is happening less than a year after the American military dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, killing about 200,000 men, women and children. This test is to see what the bomb will do to a fleet of battleships and the effect of a nuclear detonation underwater.
This short documentary — less than an hour in length — uses file footage from the era, along with two interview subjects, to tell the story of this test detonation. The meager stature of Radio Bikini’s production is in direct contrast to the power of the weaponry at its center.
I found this film to be a terrifying reminder of the cavalier attitude with which devastating new technology can be handled, especially when paranoia and international competition are thrown into the mix. Stone’s directorial style is minimal but the subject matter the movie deals with is so impactful that he doesn’t need flash to keep your eye.
The movie begins with a quote that’s so shortsighted and ethnocentric that it’s embarrassing to think it came from the Oval Office. “We thank God that [the atomic bomb] has come to us, instead of to our enemies. And we pray that He may guide us to use it in His ways and for His purposes,” said then-President Harry Truman in a national address.
President Harry Truman frames the atomic bomb as divine intervention.
But enough politics, let’s talk about the film.
Radio Bikini isn’t so much a picture about nuclear war as it is about American imperialism. The inhabitants of the tiny, beautiful island where these tests take place could easily be substituted for Native Americans. Once Bikini Atoll is selected as the detonation site, U.S. military officials are seen forcing the island’s residents to relocate, without giving the people many details as to why they have to move.
Stone’s film only uses interview footage from two people: John Smitherman, an American serviceman who was present for the tests and Kilon Bauno, a chief elder of the natives. Bauno explains that his people didn’t know what a camera was, let alone a 20 kiloton bomb, so they simply went along with the soldiers as they were ushered onto a ship and led to a different island.
We see American propaganda film strips from 1946 that show the islanders smiling as they pack up their belongings and say goodbye to the only home they’ve ever known. Bauno reveals that this “news” footage was heavily rehearsed, with the camera crew often needing several takes.
The material covered in this film is fairly grim but Stone shows a flair for entertainment through the use of lighthearted music juxtaposed with frightening imagery. Later on, the movie borders on satirical as Stone plays peaceful luau music beneath shots of the underwater test nuke exploding. We see a mushroom cloud of water rise from the surface as the detonation shakes the island’s palm trees — all the while, instrumentals that sound like rejects from a Don Ho record emanate from your sound system.
Clearly, Stone has a sense of humor, which is welcome in a mostly dry film like this. It also helps to keep the audience interested when they know a real-life atomic bomb will be detonated at some point during the movie.
There’s no question that the bomb is the true star of Radio Bikini. No special effects or animation could duplicate the raw force of the nuke, giving this movie a morbid magnetism that is hard to deny, no matter how anti-war an audience member may be.
There’s something fascinating about witnessing something “more powerful than anything man has ever known,” as one on-scene broadcaster puts it. When the landborne bomb is detonated, the servicemen stare at the massive mushroom cloud in awe, with one witness comparing its visage to “the setting sun.”
John Smitherman, the American G.I. who was present and is interviewed for Radio Bikini, says the soldiers on the island were mostly kept in the dark, as far as specific knowledge of the test mission was concerned. Obviously the men and women at Bikini Atoll knew a nuclear blast was something one wanted miles of distance from but they weren’t informed of potential aftereffects from being at the scene.
These American soldiers, including Smitherman, were essentially experimented on as well, without their knowledge. We see newsreel footage of servicemen joking around on a Naval ship, swimming in the irradiated ocean water just days after the bomb was detonated. With the knowledge we have now, it makes for a tough watch when we see these young men smiling as a Geiger counter begins loudly clicking when pressed against their clothing.
This specific sequence sticks in your mind as you watch Radio Bikini, its importance not fully known until the movie’s ending knocks you flat on your ass. Just when you think you understand the point of this film and you’ve felt all the weight it has to offer, Stone’s camera slowly pulls back to reveal the lasting physical toll these tests took on Smitherman — and it’s assumed thousands of other soldiers who were present. I’ve seen a lot of stunning reveals in my years watching movies but Radio Bikini’s literally left my mouth hanging open.
This carefully crafted documentary was part of the nine-time Peabody Award-winning PBS series American Experience. Radio Bikini aired as the second episode of the show’s first season in 1988 — setting the bar at a stratospheric level. Robert Stone has since directed several other acclaimed installments for American Experience, as well as a handful of feature-length documentaries. He’s yet to win an Oscar or an Emmy, despite nominations for both.
Nearly 60 years after the atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll, the once-populated island is still unlivable. The residents of Bikini Atoll were relocated to Kili Island, an island roughly one-seventh the size of their original home and located about 500 miles away.