Tribeca 2023 Review: Richland

Richland, Washington is a small town with which not many people may be familiar. And yet, it has a fascinating piece of history attached to it. It’s one that is both celebrated by many who have lived in the small town for many decades and derived by those who are considered “outsiders,” or non-residents, or are the youth of the town. This is a town that was created by the U.S. government and was utilized to house many workers for the Manhattan Project, which contributed to the creation of the atomic bomb used during World War II.

To this day, there are still many residents of Richland who celebrate that part of history and how their little town played such a big part in ending the war. The documentary, simply called Richland, shows a celebration of the 45th anniversary of the town’s Atomic Frontier Days, which consists of a parade and exploration of the town’s history and the impact it had after the end of World War II. Streets are named after specific components in the making of the atomic bomb, such as Nuclear Lane and Proton Lane. There’s a café called the Atomic Café, and the high school mascot is the Bombers while the school’s logo is a giant R surrounded by an atomic cloud in the background.

Others are not quite as impressed with the fascination by the town’s history. For them, it’s a moment of shame as it led to the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and killed many innocent people. It’s not just those who see or hear of the celebration from outside Richland, but it’s also those who are descendants of nuclear plant workers or those who are currently attending Richland High School.

Director Irene Lusztig does a fascinating job at capturing both perspectives of the argument from both insiders and outsiders. We get an array of interviews from those who want to keep the history alive and celebrate the small town’s big accomplishment, and those who want to not necessarily eradicate it but maybe not celebrate it as much. Some of the people interviewed include plant workers who have been in the industry for more than four decades, historical preservationists at the local library, sons and daughters of those who worked at the Hanford Nuclear Site, and the descendants of atomic bomb survivors.

While the Hanford Site is no longer operating, it is now considered a tourist attraction. And yet, there is a large chunk of the area that is uninhabitable as it contains more than 580 gallons of nuclear waste. Folks can only go to a certain spot within the area without being exposed to the radiation that still remains. This location has now become the biggest cleanup project in the world, and there are many who want to clean it up and turn it into a habitable location, while others want to keep it as is, and people can still visit it as a tourist destination.

Lusztig doesn’t just make the film simply about the town’s history with a bunch of scientific terminology thrown into the mix. There are also many sweet interactions with the residents of Richland, who reminisce about their time growing up when the plant was still operable and how they quickly adapted to the radiation being all around them. One conversation that is featured with a husband and wife features the wife joking about how she doesn’t fish from the river – and that she doesn’t even like fish in the first place.

Residents of the area or nearby locations have turned their memories of Richland and the Hanford Nuclear Site into songs and poems, many of which are sung or recited during the documentary. It’s a beautiful way to get more conversation out of the seemingly quiet, mostly conservative townsfolk who hold those memories near and dear to their heart – whether they are painful or filled with joy.

The documentary brings up the conversation of possibly renaming the high school mascot and doing away with the mushroom cloud logo. One interviewee mentioned bringing up the idea in the past, to which many longtime residents quickly turned on that person and considered them a betrayer to the town’s legacy. A brief conversation amongst high school students shows most of them agreeing that it’s not something to necessarily be proud of, while one takes the “devil’s advocate” approach and brings up the idea of being in Harry Truman’s shoes when that decision was made.

In just 93 minutes, Lusztig introduces viewers to a small town with which many are not familiar. And we immediately get engrossed in what makes it so unique. It’s incredible how such a small town made such a big contribution to American history, and it’s still not as popularized or as heavily discussed as one may think it should be.

But what Lusztig captures perfectly is how the division amongst the townspeople and outsiders about preserving the legacy of Richland and celebrating it is not quite to the level of divisiveness that is witnessed in America – especially through the lens of your everyday Twitter user. Richland is more than just about the small town and its history; it’s also about how we should all be able to come together and respect one another despite our differences.

Richland is informative and eye-opening in many ways than one. It exposes viewers to this interesting town and the fantastic history behind it. But it also serves as a reminder on how to have conversations about the different beliefs we all hold. Whether or not you agree with most of the viewpoints presented, Lusztig does a great job at evenly portraying both viewpoints and not leaning heavily toward one way or the other. There’s never this feeling of one side being all fanatical about their views, while the other side is calmer in presenting their views. The conversations come across as steady discussions between two opposing viewpoints.

Those unfamiliar with the town of Richland will immediately fall in love with the town’s quirkiness and also be intrigued by its history. The facts that are discussed and displayed throughout are surprisingly more revealing than one would imagine, and it’s amazing how some things about the town aren’t as widely known as one would think.

Watching this documentary could also lead to those unfamiliar with the town wanting to make a road trip just to explore the areas in person. And with a recent New York Times article and, to a degree, the upcoming release of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, it won’t be a surprise if the town’s popularity suddenly surges.

David Wangberg

1 Comment

  1. JenC on June 13, 2023 at 3:05 pm

    Located in southeastern Washington state, the Hanford Site is located on a 580-square-mile area of land that formerly produced plutonium during the Manhattan Project and the Cold War for the nation’s defense program. In 1989, the site’s mission transitioned from plutonium production to environmental cleanup, including protection of the Columbia River. Currently, approximately 56 million gallons of highly radioactive and chemically complex waste is stored in underground storage tanks on the site. Tank waste retrieval and treatment is a major part of current environmental cleanup operations taking place on the site that employs approximately 10,000 highly skilled workers.

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