With Putin parading missile launchers in Moscow and North Korea appearing to have launched an intercontinental ballistic missile, the specter of nuclear annihilation is on the minds of many. Back in the old Cold War era, filmmaker Travis Wilkerson’s mother was so obsessed with the threat, he had recurring nightmares of Armageddon as a boy. Just before Travis went off to college, his mother decided to take the family on a road trip visiting ICBM silos in Montana.
Near the beginning of “Nuclear Family” (2021), directed by Travis and his wife, Erin Wilkerson, a clip from a video he made of that trip shows his mother standing in front of the barbed-wired wasteland beneath which Minuteman missiles lay ready for the button to be pushed. “It’s great to be on vacation, isn’t it?” his mother asks an unidentified man in the home movie. Seeing the site of the intercontinental ballistic missiles, she says, made her feel that she would “sleep better tonight.”
As it turns out, Travis could sleep better, too — when the trip is over, his nightmares end and are gone for more than 30 years. But they start again after the 2016 presidential election, and he decides to try the same tour his mother took him on with his own family. “We didn’t make it very far,” he says in deadpan voice-over as the car breaks down before they reach their first destination. Erin and their two young children are none too happy about idling while awaiting repairs at a godforsaken motel in the middle of nowhere with an empty pool and the only place to eat a dismal Subway restaurant.
The documentary takes up the same nonchalant tone his mother expresses in the old home movie until Travis notices that, uncannily, he has gotten stuck near the site of a documentary he made 10 years earlier (2011′s “Sand Creek Equation”) about the 1864 massacre by US troops of more than 150 members of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, mostly women and children. Whatever tone of levity established previously shrivels as he describes the gruesome atrocities.
The car is repaired, and the tour resumes, but from that point on the filmmakers link the grotesque genocidal past of the country’s western expansion to the deadly megatonnage lying beneath the bleak, often beautiful landscape. Accounts of tragic clashes between the US government and Indigenous people, such as the heroic campaign by Nez Percé leader Chief Joseph (of “I will fight no more forever” fame), are intercut with semi-surreal family visits to neglected memorials to past carnage, often reduced to failed, kitschy tourist attractions. These scenes are punctuated with the horrifying but perversely sublime images of unfolding nuclear blasts. Many images possess an oneiric beauty and eerie innocence, such as that of the Wilkersons’ kids gamboling on the dunes of White Sands, N.M., site of the first test of a nuclear device on July 16, 1945.
“Nuclear Family” engages in the kind of documentary method that local filmmaker John Gianvito mastered in films such as 2007′s “Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind,” in which sites of historical injustices, now unmarked or forgotten, are revisited and their tales told. Here, the ghosts of a murderous past loom as harbingers of a potentially apocalyptic future.
“Nuclear Family” is the spring season closing film at the DocYard and screens May 16 at 7 p.m. at the Brattle Theatre. A Skype Q&A with the filmmakers follows the screening.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.