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Reel Life: 14 1/2 hours on the Armageddon express

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Talk about encores, and overkill. Peter Watkins's The War Game (1965) was a 47-minute black-and-white pseudodocumentary of a "limited" nuclear strike against Britain (with the comparatively paltry weapons of the era), and it remains by far the most gut-twisting film treatment of the unthinkable possibility of nuclear war. Unthinkable? Actually a lot of highly educated and very well paid folks have labored diligently over the last few decades to devise schemes whereby nations can unleash their nuclear arsenals, halt somewhere short of mutual obliteration, and have whoever survives declare victory in the irradiated wastelands. It may pass for strategy, but as the nuclear stockpiles multiply, can we afford to call this "thinking"? Watkins thinks not, and in The Journey, his 14 1/2-hour "sequel" to The War Game (which will have its second U.S. screening this weekend at the Film Center of the Art Institute), he attempts nothing less than to expose and diagnose the institutions and the propaganda that perpetuate the insanity.

"This film is about systems," Watkins narrates, "systems under which we all live and the mechanisms they use to deprive us of information and participation." The answers he suggests are, of course, controversial, but the questions are all sorely in need of the public attention Watkins hopes to aenerate. First, he asks families in 11 countries (and the audience) if they ever have been encouraged or dared to consider causal connections between the planetary arms race on one hand, and poverty, joblessness, and oppression on the other -- then proceeds to make that troubling connection. Second, Watkins rhetorically asks whether we really want to entrust the fate of the earth to leaders who don't trust us with the information we need to arrive at democratic decisions. Third, Watkins, who hopes "You will not feel there is anything objective about the information I will give you," flushes out many of the interests and biases that guide the way in which the mass media "objectively" packages the news. There is no end of engaging material. Fortunately, the slow-poke sequences and Watkins's schoolmasterish narration are largely confined to the first three hours, and the film revs up enthrallingly from there. Skip part one (Friday, 7 PM), hustle in to view any or all of parts two (Saturday, 4 PM), three (Saturday, 7:30 PM), and four (Sunday, 4 PM), and, unless 45 minutes of screen credits is your idea of cinematic fun, pass up part five (Sunday, 7:30 PM). The themes overlap, interweave, and are reiterated from part two onward, so you won't miss a thing.

A recurring and riveting image is the "white train," laden with 20 megatons worth of nuclear warheads, chugging in a ghostly, grainy slo-mo shot through a small American town en route to a west-coast Trident submarine base. Around this macabre journey Watkins spins out an expanding webwork of its frightful meaning, of the immense financial and human costs involved. A lecturer explains how nuclear weapons "work" (We learn of one nitwitted scientist who is so certain plutonium is "safe" that he offers to swallow a gram of the stuff on network TV.) Workers at a weapons assembly plant say it's "not my job" to sweat over the eventual applications of the fearsome products. Amid lecturettes and interviews, Watkins sprinkles statistics and graphs on the growth of the world nuclear arsenal, contrasts the vast expenditures on the military with the fractions of those sums needed for frivolous social concerns like education and health, and even visually "translates" the cost per American family per month of the MX missile system into a kitchenful of bags of groceries. Watkins intermingles these episodes with scenes of families in the U.S., Russia, West Germany, Britain, Sweden, and other nations poring over photos of Hiroshima-Nagasaki victims and thinking out loud that maybe it ain't such a good idea to nuke anyone anytime anywhere. (An especially stunning shot pans rows of jars filled with internal organs of Japanese nuclear victims, pickled and as yet unexamined by medical researchers.) For good measure, Watkins reprises the evacuation episode of The War Game, and the reenactment underscores the ludicrous futility of "civil defense."

And what about the Russkies? Watkins's subversive intent -- and what's more subversive than urging "ordinary" people to ask questions and to take more control over their lives? -- extends beyond bemoaning the affairs of states. The most ironically effective sequence serving Watkins's aims is a chat with a Leningrad family, a plainly amiable and decent couple who may have too much in common with their counterparts in the capitalist world. The husband believes the Soviet government truly has his best interests in mind, that troops in Afghanistan are there to "help our class brothers," and that arms spending is necessary even if at "the detriment of the economy" -- yet he's clearly fretful about arms escalation. It is not only the Soviets who are confined by subtle (and not-so-subtle) official propaganda. A Canadian housewife tells how astonished she was to find that peace demonstrators were just concerned folks like herself, not the rabid malcontents the TV coverage implied. Other families interviewed dissect their politicians' doubletalk on arms control and reductions: "they must go to a special school to say things like that."

In parts two and three Watkins alerts audiences to the techniques with which the media -- including him -- manipulate information. Part four surveys grass-roots community groups and their strategies, offering these as models for action, a beginning of action at least. The Journey roams far wider than is encapsulated here: touching -- only touching, however -- on issues of third world exploitation, sexism, racism, and other evils the planet so far is heir to. The Journey is unabashedly a utopian's vision and critique, but without such visions we'd still be hunkered down in caves. And if the critique is not heeded, some of us soon will be again.

Tickets for all five parts of The Journey are $20 ($14 for members of the Film Center or the Peace Museum) and can be reserved at 443-3733. Tickets for individual parts are available only on the clay of the show (Film Center members' cards will not be honored for The Journey). Film Center screenings take place at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Columbus Drive at Jackson. Details at 443-3733.

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