AFF Review: First We Bombed New Mexico

Manhattan Project survivors documentary is a call to action

A counterpoint to Christopher Nolan’s biopic about one man’s race to become Death, Lois Lipman’s First We Bombed New Mexico captures the real-life counter crusade of one of Oppenheimer’s countless, unsung American victims.

The film, which took home the Best Documentary award at Austin Film Festival, centers on Tina Cordova: an independent business woman who, after learning that she had thyroid cancer, becomes the voice of the long-neglected, ignored and lied to communities still being devastated by America’s first nuclear bomb test, codename Trinity.

But this David versus Goliath story is about as one-sided as it gets. In one corner, we’ve got poor, mostly blue-collar Hispanic and Native American communities that have had to “learn to live with” five generations of multiple types of cancer and induced deaths, not to mention the myriad exorbitant treatments to cripple their economic prospects. In the other corner, there's the word of Uncle Sam’s Atomic Energy Commission, whose unofficial policy according to some was to never admit that anyone’s been harmed by radiation.

And that was from day one, when the official line concerning the seven-mile high mushroom cloud in the sky came from a ammunition dump that had exploded and that there was nothing to worry about; that despite the high winds and storm clouds that were sure to spread the nuclear fallout of the dirtiest of bombs – packed with more plutonium that Hiroshima and Nagasaki – there was no need to evacuate. Meanwhile, the scientists got the hell away from the Trinity site.

Unfortunately for much of the rest of the country, the radiation cloud cut a huge swath from New Mexico, through North Texas and much of the heartland on its way up through Maine and the Atlantic. And no one said a word to any and all those Americans just living their lives during those most fateful of days. So, literally, the fallout is immeasurable.

But the brunt of that hellish firestorm was first felt by those poorer, browner communities that had settled those plains long before the scientists showed up, confiscated a large plot of land via imminent domain and then dropped a bomb with so much poison that at least 300 babies died from drinking their mother’s radioactive breast milk.

After that, the litany of grief is never ending. From the young Texas girls at a New Mexico campsite throwing warm, radioactive snowballs at each other – all but one dying of cancer by 35 – to the woman who lost 14 relatives. Another lost 18. And one survivor buried all 10 of her siblings, along with three sons. And the man whose family moved to New Mexico in the Nineties when he was 10: years later, married and planning for a family in California, he gets diagnosed with a rare brain cancer, and agrees to go on camera while his unflappable wife helps him with his experimental treatments so that others might not have to suffer such tragedies.

Even Cordova’s niece recently got her cancer diagnosis, something their family considers almost inevitable and which continues to spur this grueling 18 years effort during which she helped produce a short community college documentary that caught the notice of the Emmy- and Peabody-award-winning Lipman, who got the backing for a feature-length documentary that follows Cordova as she records these tales of woe on her way to D.C., where after 75 years, her proverbial stone finally dings Goliath’s skull, forcing 61 U.S. Senators to vote to extend Kennedy’s 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty so that her people might finally get the reparations from a government that bombed its own people.

Now she needs a majority of the House to reconcile their version of the legislation by June of 2024, before the treaty expires.

At the first screening at the Austin Film Festival, Tina Cordova urged a thoroughly moved audience to call their members of Congress and voice their support. Count me in on that front.

First We Bombed New Mexico

Tue., Oct., 31 3pm

Austin Film Festival runs Oct. 26-Nov. 3. Badges available now at
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