Image from the documentary Pandora's Promise

Robert Stone’s pro-nuclear-energy documentary Pandora’s Promise shows one side of the debate. Doc Soup Man Tom Roston talks with author-journalist Mark Hertsgaard for some context.

Boy, did I step into it this time.

Over the weekend, The New York Times published my article on Pandora’s Promise, a documentary that advocates for nuclear energy as a valid way to combat climate change and the seemingly inevitable destruction of our planet. My story focused on how the documentary is unusual in that it doesn’t preach to the choir, as most documentaries do.

I didn’t have a bone to pick, and I reported the facts. But just by bringing Pandora’s Promise more attention, I was helping to support it, in a way. That’s fine by me. But, whether right or wrong, Pandora’s Promise offers just one side of the story. Director Robert Stone told me that that was entirely intentional. He didn’t want to present a Crossfire-like debate. He wanted to give the pro-nukes side in his film, and to provoke a discussion.

So, for those who have seen the film, where’s the other side of the debate? And that’s when it hit me. Well, actually, it was sent to me — in the form of an email about articles in The Nation that refutes many of the major claims in Pandora’s Promise. And here they are: a discussion between environmental writers Mark Hertsgaard and Terry Tempest Williams and a list of five myths vs. facts.

There’s more debate on the film and the subject to be found on The New York Times environmental blog Dot Earth — make sure to check out the comments thread.

I emailed some questions to the Nation writer, Mark Hertsgaard, just to get the balance right.

Doc Soup Man: I saw in your articles what you thought of its arguments, but can you tell me a little about your personal reaction to Pandora’s Promise?

Mark Hertsgaard: My overriding personal reaction to Pandora’s Promise was, pardon the cliche, “I’ve seen this movie before.”  The arguments were virtually indistinguishable from what I was told by nuclear industry executives in the interviews I did 30 years ago for my book, Nuclear Inc.: The Men and Money Behind Nuclear Energy.  As I mentioned in my Nation piece, the very first time I heard the term “global warming” was from a nuclear industry executive, who assured me that sometime around the turn of the 21st century “global warming” would help politicians and the public alike to understand that the world faced what this executive and many of his colleagues liked to call “a nuclear imperative.”  That climate-nuclear link wasn’t the only cause of the deja vu I felt while watching Pandora’s Promise; most of the documentary’s arguments for why nuclear is a superior option I had heard in greater detail from the scores of executives I interviewed for Nuclear Inc.

I hasten to add that this regurgitation of nuclear industry talking points is by no means ipso facto proof that the documentary is wrong.  I don’t believe in arguing guilt by association or asserting that someone’s economic interests or ideological perspective automatically disqualifies them from being correct.  I further believe that any filmmaker, or writer, has the right to portray his or her vision of the truth, and as passionately as desired.  I also believe, however, in examining the factual basis for whatever argument is being advanced.  I wish the documentary had shown the same intellectual honesty, instead of presenting such a one-sided picture, especially of environmentalists and other critics of nuclear power — not one of whom is portrayed as anything less than a hysterical nutcase.

Personally, I am a critic of nuclear power, but by no means a reflexive one, and I came to my position through years of independent investigation and diligent study, not because I was somehow brainwashed by the tribal identity of 1960’s environmentalists.  (For one thing, I’m too young to belong to the Sixties generation.  For another — and this is but one of many logical mis-fires in Pandora’s Promise — Stewart Brand is undoubtedly a 1960s’ environmentalist, thanks to his role in the iconic Whole Earth Catalogue, and yet he is now the loudest voice calling for all-out pursuit of nuclear power.  Kinda undercuts the film’s assertion, as voiced by Michael Shellenberger in the closing frames and, more recently, in a front page San Francisco Chronicle story this week, that Sixties generation environmentalists are beyond persuasion about nuclear power, doesn’t it?)

In terms of filmmaking, I thought Pandora’s Promise was okay, not great.  Certainly it was more viewer-friendly than Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, but at the end of the day Pandora’s Promise is a movie of talking heads making an intellectual argument.  That is a difficult thing to bring to life on the screen, and I thought Stone did a resourceful job of tackling the challenge.  He owes a great debt to Mark Lynas, apparently the only one of the five converts willing to venture forth from a darkened interview studio and be filmed exploring the situation on the ground, for example at Fukushima.

Doc Soup Man: Stone says that most people go in to seeing his film feeling anti-nuclear, and come out, feeling pro-nuclear. Do you believe this? If so, why do you think this is happening?

Mark Hertsgaard: To my skeptical journalist’s ears, this sounds like decidedly wishful thinking, spun for the benefit of a NYT interview.  I note your NYT story says that Stone did “polling” of his audiences.  Maybe.  But I’d like to see the methodology and practices employed in said “polling” before I would give Mr. Stone’s characterization of the results much credence.

Meanwhile, the public as a whole appears to be voting with its feet, and the results so far are underwhelming, to say the least.  On this, its opening weekend, Pandora’s Promise has reportedly grossed a mere $20,421 in ticket sales.  Averaged across the 16 theaters where it has been shown and assuming a ticket price of $10 a seat with ten showings over the course of Friday and Saturday, these numbers suggest that most showings are attracting about a dozen viewers.  A groundswell, this is not.

Doc Soup Man: Is your anti-Pandora’s Promise attack getting traction?

Mark Hertsgaard: First of all, I don’t accept that what Terry and I wrote was an “attack.”  It was a critique of the film’s claims, in which I in particular compared its assertions with the established record of evidence.  I came to the conclusion that the film cherry-picked its evidence and presented a woefully one-sided perspective, and that’s what I wrote. Had the film dealt differently with evidence and argument, I would have written a different critique.  I make this point because to say that our article was an “attack” is to accept the narrative frame that Stone and the film wrongly insist upon: that everyone else’s minds are irretrievably made up and if one disagrees with the brave converts in the film, then it must be because of an ideological rejection of nuclear power.

As for whether the Nation piece is “getting traction,” I confess that I always find it hard to answer this type of question; the necessary data are elusive and the phenomenon itself can’t be linearly measured anyway. For example, it’s a rule of thumb in most newsrooms that only the people who DON’T like a given story write a letter to the editor about it; you never hear from the many folks who do like that story. (Books, I’ve found, are somewhat different; I’ve gotten many appreciative letters from readers over the years — far more than the letters accusing me of being a communist, idiot or pick your insult.)  Anyway, I know our exchange was highlighted in Andy Revkin’s Dot Earth blog and I expect it will continue to generate interest as it spreads to other venues over time.

Pandora’s Promise is now screening in a handful of cities, including New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia. For a full list and show times, visit

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen