A doctor assigned to monitor Army tests of nuclear battlefield conditions learns that soldiers are being deliberately exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. [ Nightbreaker credits: Dir: Peter Markle/ Martin Sheen, Emilio Estevez, Lea Thompson/ 99 min/ Drama/ Abuse of Power, Working for Government]
“An example of the ultimately proprietary if not predatory attitude government often takes towards its citizens.”
In the late 1980s, journalistic and congressional investigators revealed that the U.S. government had conducted a variety of secret experiments on Americans to test the effects of radiation. According to official records, subjects usually gave their ostensible consent, but the situations in which they gave consent and the information they were given about the risks often do not bear scrutiny. In some cases, subjects had no idea at all what was going on. Nightbreaker does a good job of dramatizing these experiments and in so doing provides an example of the ultimately proprietary if not predatory attitude government often takes towards its citizens.
Most of the story takes place in the 1950s, at a nuclear test site in Nevada. The main character is a young doctor who has been hired to help with secret nuclear tests using soldiers as subjects. At first, he’s just a naive observer, trusting of the government and determined to carry out proposed tests as ordered. But in the course of participating in them, he gradually realizes that the soldiers involved are unwittingly being used as guinea pigs and are being exposed to increasingly high levels of radiation. Angered and embittered by this revelation, he finally quits the program. Flash forward thirty years: The same doctor is approached by a group of sick veterans who now are suffering from radiation-related illnesses, but who can’t get the government to admit what it did to them. He’s the only one left who knows the truth. Will he tell or won’t he? That’s the principle source of drama here. The story is slightly diluted by a tepid love interest, but otherwise it concentrates on the subject at hand.
Nightbreaker ends with some actual footage of soldiers being deliberately exposed to a nearby nuclear blast, followed by a notation that “between 1945 and 1962 over two hundred and thirty five thousand American servicemen and women were involved in above-ground atomic tests.” Also listed as Advance to Ground Zero.