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History Nerd's Review: Radioactive (2020)

"I'd rather be someone that hopes the world full of light than fears for the darkness out there, wouldn't you?"

Radioactive, released on Amazon Prime, is a film biography of Marie Skodlawska Curie (Rosamund Pike), the two-time Nobel Prize winner who discovered radioactivity in partnership with her husband Pierre (Sam Riley). It's unique in that it departs from the chronology of Madam Curie's life at various points to "flash forward" to events after her death in which the scientific principles the Curies discovered played a role. The innovative story structure likely earned screenwriter Jack Thorne an A+ in Creative Writing and director Marjane Satrapi an equally impressive grade in film school – but how did they do on the History final? Let's break out the answer key and start grading.

Yes, that really happened: Madame Curie, the French chemist whose accomplishments are a point of national pride in France, was actually Polish. She married French scientist Pierre Curie and became a naturalized French citizen, but always considered herself a Pole first, and even named one of the elements she discovered after her home country: polonium. She is to this day the only person to win two Nobel Prizes in two scientific disciplines, Physics in 1903 (shared with her husband Pierre) and Chemistry in 1911.

The film gets the basic outline of her life story correct, including the fact that both she and Pierre came down with radiation poisoning as a consequence of their exposure to radioactive elements. Not knowing of the effect radiation has on the human body, they handled radioactive substances so casually that they did things like keeping a vial of radium by their bed as a sort of nightlight. A hundred-plus years later, Marie's papers – even her cookbook! – are still so radioactive that protective clothing is required if you want to handle them.

After Pierre's death, Marie had an affair with a married man that became a national scandal, partially because of the stricter morals of the era and partially because French nationalists seized on it as another convenient way to bash foreigners. (Militant hyper-nationalism was common all over Europe in those times, one of the factors that contributed to the outbreak of World War One. Compared to things like the Dreyfus Affair and the various pogroms in eastern Europe, today's rancorous immigration debates are a monument to logic and civility.)

During the Great War, Marie and her teenage daughter Irene developed the first mobile X-ray machines, the petites Curies ("Little Curies"). It is estimated that around a million men benefitted from the presence of the petites Curies in French field hospitals between 1914 and 1918.

Points off for: The film plays fast and loose with some of the details of Marie's life. For instance, the film has Marie's younger daughter Eve in gestation in October of 1903 when the Nobel Prize is announced; actually, Eve was born in December of 1904.

While it is true that female scientists were uncommon in those times, and often not accepted as equals by their male counterparts no matter how good their research was, this element is overplayed in the service of modern ideology. Contrary to what's shown on the screen, a sexist Nobel committee did not snub Marie with a non-invitation, forcing Pierre to deliver the prize lecture alone in 1903. When the Curies finally got to Stockholm to give their lecture in 1905 – having been delayed by Pierre's illness and Eve's birth – both Curies delivered it together.

Extra credit for: The film takes pains to show how much hard physical labor the Curies had to go through to make their discoveries. They had to process a metric ton of pitchblende ore by hand to get 0.1 grams of radium chloride – and that meant lots of shoveling and rock-crushing.

When radium was first discovered, it was a pop-culture "thing." As noted in the film, the fad even extended to consumer products like radium toothpaste that were born of hype and ignorance.

Additional comments: Many reviewers disliked the interspersed "flash forward" sequences that showed events like the Chernobyl nuclear accident and the bombing of Hiroshima. I disagree. Telling a story by playing with the timeline is a legitimate technique, and here it's well-executed with clever transitions between the flash-forwards and the main story. One sequence shows Marie's collapse and trip to the hospital in 1934, another an early use of radiation therapy for cancer treatment (at the Cleveland Clinic – yay Ohio!) and then there's Chernobyl, and Hiroshima, and an A-bomb test that wrecks a simulated Leave it to Beaver suburb.

To the extent that Radioactive seems, by its choice of topics, to be trying to say that Hiroshima and Chernobyl would not have happened but for the Curies and their research, or that Marie and Pierre should be considered at least partly responsible for the less benevolent uses their discoveries were put to, it's dead wrong. Human beings don't write the laws of physics and chemistry, they discover them. The Earth was going around the sun in an elliptical path, and had been doing so for several million years, before Johannes Kepler worked out the laws of planetary motion. Daniel Bernouli didn't invent the inverse relationship between the speed of a moving fluid and the static pressure it exerts perpendicular to the flow, that relationship was always there. The DNA molecule was always a spiral helix.

Radium and polonium have been around since the dawn of time. If the Curies hadn't discovered them, someone else eventually would have. The universe works the way it does whether we notice it working or not, whether we understand its workings or not. Scientific inquiry is a tool for obtaining knowledge about those workings; the question of what to do with that knowledge is better answered by ethics and philosophy and theology.

Final grade: 93%

Baby M, who's not uptight and not unattractive, tried very hard to sneak a reference to the 1985 hit single "Radioactive" into this review, but couldn't find a place for it.

1 comment:

  1. Baby M, you just made me interested in trying this movie, so good on you. Your last bit about the song was really funny, too. :)


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