Bad Movie Wednesday

One of a continuing series

I noticed this on Amazon Prime Video. Never heard of it before. But it’s got George Clooney and Nicole Kidman. A thriller about international terrorism and stolen nuclear weapons. Got to be something worth watching. It’s from 1997, which means it’s about 20 years old. Lots of stuff has changed since then. Hopefully more has been learned about nuclear weapons than is reflected in the plot.

Amazon took this off their Prime offerings shortly after I watched it, so I’m getting the fine details from Wikipedia. It’s The Peacemaker from Dreamworks Pictures.

A minister of a Balkan country is attending church when he is paged to step outside to meet his assassin. What’s going on here? We eventually learn.

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Next up, a paramilitary gang stages an elaborate heist of ten nuclear warheads in Russia. The operation involves pulling another train alongside the one carrying the nukes, boarding the moving train, murdering the sleeping Russian soldiers guarding the shipment, and transferring (almost all) the warheads to the other train.

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Then the train with the stolen warheads is parked in a tunnel, and a collision is arranged between the weapons train and a passenger train. There is much death and destruction. Only, the warhead remaining on the crashed train is timed to detonate. By the time it goes, rural folks nearby have already been awakened by the commotion and have gone outside to see the light and smoke from the burning trains. Then the warhead goes off, and it’s as though the sun is coming up. But it’s not the sun. It’s the clap of doom as the fireball grows immensely, frying the countryside. Shortly the shock wave hits, sweeping away everything.

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The remaining train is pulled out of its tunnel, and the stolen warheads are transferred to waiting trucks. They will proceed by road to the Iranian border. All except one. One warhead is disassembled, and the nuclear detonator is salvaged.

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Meanwhile, United States intelligence, always on the alert, takes notice of these goings on. Especially the detonation of a thermonuclear warhead in a civilian area in Russia. Nuclear expert Dr. Julia Kelly (Kidman) is summoned immediately from her daily swim, and, hair still wet, puts together a briefing. It’s the Chechens, she observes. Not so fast, says U.S. Army Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Devoe (Clooney). He points out a number of facts.

For one, the bomb went off several minutes after the train crash. From the size of the explosion it’s apparent only one of a shipment of ten detonated. This is beginning to look like a planned detonation.

Additionally, high-ranking Russian general, Aleksandr Kodoroff was aboard the train. There was absolutely no reason he should have been on that that train unless, unless he had some nefarious plan. It’s not going to be possible to determine what happened to the other warheads, because everything within a quarter mile of the detonation point would have been vaporized. Besides, nobody is going to get near the place for years.

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The sexy Dr. Kelly agrees to team with Colonel Devoe, and they go to Austria to track down the trucking company that most likely leased the truck for the stolen nukes. Things go sour. The trucking company is a Mafia operation, and Devoe is identified on surveillance video. This is after Devoe and Kelly torture the owner into coughing up his computer password, said computer containing the company’s leasing records.

Oops. Mafia thugs intercept the Americans and their Russian collaborator Dimitri Vertikoff (Armin Mueller-Stahl). They shoot Vertikoff dead in the street, right in front of the amazed Kelly and Devoe. Devoe kills most of the attackers in a running battle, and he and Kelly regroup.

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The printout the Americans made of the leasing records has been destroyed in the fire that consumed their getaway car. Devoe is impressed when Kelly shows that before leaving the leasing company she emailed the document to herself. They view the records and identify the likely truck carrying the warheads. It’s on a road headed for the Iranian border.

Before it can get there, American special forces helicopters, one with Devoe aboard, penetrate Russian airspace and take the truck under fire, but not before Russian air defense destroys one of their helicopters, killing all aboard. The truck is left teetering on a bridge across a deep gorge.

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Devoe, aboard a surviving helicopter, gets himself lowered by a line to the truck. He battles the surviving truck crew and hoists the warhead cargo aboard the helicopter before the truck plunges over the edge. A nuclear scientist, who has survived the attack, swaps information for salvation. He informs the Americans that one of the gang has previously slipped away with a warhead detonator in his backpack.

Where is the remaining weapon headed? It’s concluded by viewing a suicide tape made by a Balkan diplomat that he intends to detonate the mini-nuke at a United Nations meeting he is scheduled to attend in New York.

There is much excitement as Kelly and Devoe race back to New York and attempt to track down the nuclear device. The chase comes to a conclusion inside a Church near the UN headquarters, where the diplomat shoots himself, leaving the detonator on a timer. Kelly further impresses Devoe by chipping away one segment of the implosion charge.

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That doesn’t prevent the timer from timing out and the detonators from detonating. However, the loss of one segment of the shaped charge ensures there will be no compression of the plutonium core and no nuclear chain reaction. As the pair of heroes dive for a church window, the blast propels them out onto the sidewalk.

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Later Devoe pays Kelly a visit as she is taking her daily swim. She tells him she has ten more laps to go before she can join him for a beer. There’s going to be sex, but only after the movie is over. This movie has absolutely no skin and no sex.

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Except that the basis for the plot is pure imagination. A central premise is that a train crash will somehow cause a nuclear warhead to detonate. Trust me. Nuclear warheads are carefully designed so that nothing will set them off except for a coordinated sequence of events. One of these events is not a train collision.

The gang that stole the warheads planned the nuclear explosion to cover up their crime. Something less dramatic would have worked. A fire aboard the train (following the crash) would have caused the implosion charges to cook off. This would have sprayed molten and burning plutonium all over the place, and nobody could have gone near the site of the collision for days, giving the thieves time to make their getaway.

And there is the business of the nuclear detonator in the church. My knowledge of nuclear devices is decades old, gleaned from popular works on the topic. What seems to be shown in the movie is a small implosion device to set off a plutonium core. That does not appear to be enough plutonium to work. The first time this trick was employed was the first time an atomic bomb was ever set off. That was 16 July 1945, and the scientists who did it packed two tons of explosive charge around a hollow sphere of plutonium about the size of an orange. In his book The Making of the Atomic Bomb, author Richard Rhodes describes the sequence of events that took place of a small fraction of a second.

And there is another thing. When I was a young man in the Navy Reserve, I read up on some damage control documentation. Damage control is a big thing aboard a ship. Miles from any kind of rescue, deep resources are kept available to control all foreseeable events that can send the ship to the bottom. One item I recall dealt with how to handle an accident involving a special weapon. That’s the euphemism used. The instruction said that in the event of an accident that set off the implosion charge, I would be faced with a pool of molten, burning plutonium on the deck. I must put out that fire, or we would all die. I would be required to cover the burning plutonium with dry sand, a supply of which is kept handy, of course. Nothing was said about the life expectancy of the person who got close enough to put out the fire. Nothing needed to be said.

In the light of that, I don’t recall seeing any such calamity in the movie. A pound of drama has overwhelmed a ton of reality.

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One thought on “Bad Movie Wednesday

  1. Pingback: Bad Movie Wednesday | Skeptical Analysis

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