Review: Radioactive (Amazon Prime)

P. Andrew Karam

When I was in grade school I had only a handful of heroes. Johnny Unitas was one—I wrote him a letter asking for an autographed photo, finally receiving a reply about four years later. Clyde Tombaugh was another—I wrote him a letter also, trying to fix him up with my grandmother. I never heard back from him; I don't think Grandma ever heard from him either. The third in my personal pantheon was Marie Curie. I knew better than to try to write her, but even as a child I knew enough to respect the way she was able achieve so much by sheer force of will, and in spite of such great personal cost. In the intervening years, while the hero worship aspects of grade school have faded a bit, my respect for her and for her accomplishments has not.

So when I heard about an upcoming biopic about Marie Curie, I have to admit to having mixed feelings—on the one hand, it would be nice to have a chance to see a depiction of Curie and her life and maybe to learn a little more about her; on the other hand, movies and TV don't have a very good track record when it comes to radiation—and nuclear-themed topics. So I watched with a combination of anticipation and trepidation.

I have to say I have mixed feelings about the show. I liked the science parts—showing the sheer physical labor that went into the work that she had to do to make her discoveries. I was also impressed with the determination she had to have to overcome the biases and preconceptions she faced. And, being a health physicist, I couldn't help but notice a fair number of work practices that would have horrified pretty much any radiation safety officer today—it made me somewhat grateful to have been working now, when I can take advantage of everything we've learned over the intervening century.

Overall, the show didn't get all that much into the science, so I didn't catch any significant scientific mistakes. And the show seemed to do well at capturing the atmosphere of Paris and the world of science around the turn of the last century. All in all, I thought that this was fairly well done, although I have to admit that I thought Rosamund Pike's portrayal of Curie was not quite what I'd expected and it took a while to get used to it.

My biggest quibble with the show, though, was the occasional flash-forward they included—to the Hiroshima bombing, to the era of atmospheric nuclear testing, and to the Chernobyl accident. While I realize that these were among the outcomes of Curie's work, I didn't like the way that these were interspersed with her life story—they were, at least, disconcerting as well as interrupting the story line. And, while I don't necessarily disagree with what I think the writers were trying to do—to show that Curie's discoveries (and those of her husband and daughter) were not an unalloyed good—I don't agree with the manner in which they did so. In my opinion, this served primarily to detract from Curie's story—they ended up being a distraction and not a cautionary tale or an injection of realism. I think they could have accomplished the same thing in a less distracting manner by simply showing these same cautionary tales at the end.

So overall, I'm glad that I watched Radioactive, in spite of my disagreement of a few aspects of the storytelling approach. I'm not sure that I'll watch it again, though.