The story will be familiar to most Danes and Greenlanders, but perhaps less so to international audiences. Delving into one of the most hushed-up chapters in Danish Cold War foreign policy, The Idealist is a film about a plane crash in Greenland that became the start of a toxic unravelling of a secret Danish nuclear policy – and about a journalist’s quest for the truth.
On 21 January 1968, an American B-52 bomber crashed near Thule Air Base in Northwest Greenland. The plane carried four hydrogen bombs, three of which were recovered whilst the fourth bomb disappeared from the sea ice – and from all documents about the crash. Until a Danish journalist, Poul Brink, from a local radio station discovered that many of the Danish workers who were sent to Greenland as part of the clean-up operation, ‘Project Crested Ice’, had developed a range of skin diseases – including cancer. Could this be explained by the missing bomb and, thus, by a potential exposure to plutonium?
This is where The Idealist takes its beginning, in 1988, 20 years after the crash. It follows Brink (played by Danish actor, Peter Plauborg) and his nine-year battle against Danish and US governments, the health care services, and his own employers. A battle which for Brink was all about proving that Danish Thule-workers had been harmed by the clean-up work they carried out in the aftermath of the 1968 crash. Yet, as the story unfolds, Brink uncovers a 1957 secret letter from former Danish Prime Minister, H. C. Hansen, documenting that Denmark in its defence agreement with the US from 1951 allowed the Americans to store nuclear weapons in Greenland (still a Danish colony at the time). This was in spite of the fact that Denmark had a ‘no nuclear’ policy – at least officially.
The film is based on real events, described by Brink himself in his book The Thule Affair – a universe of lies/ Thule-sagen – løgnens univers from 1997. Director Christina Rosendahl underlines the film’s authenticity by incorporating plenty of historical footage from Danish and American archives mixed with fictional shots that weave together the complex and tangled narratives that make up The Thule Affair, and hence also The Idealist. It is not simply a film about complicated political intrigues or about Danish-US Cold War relations, but also a portrait of a man – an idealist – who did not let anyone or anything stop him in his search for the truth.
Rosendahl’s decision to concentrate on the story, and not as such on the emotional, creates a sober cinematic reality where Brink becomes the vehicle for telling the story, rather than the story itself. Emotions are stowed away and, instead, The Idealist focuses on the tensions at play in every situation, in every scene: How does Brink confront these situations and the people that he meets in his search for the story? How do these people react to him? How does the Danish health service react to Brink’s questioning? How does the former US ambassador react when Brink tracks him down 20 years later to ask him about the secret defence agreement? How do the Danish politicians react when Brink accuses them of lying to the public? How do senior researchers from Risø National Laboratory react when Brink questions their methods? How does Brink’s boss react when he realises that Brink might be onto something? How does Brink’s Spanish girlfriend react when he distances himself more and more from his family? And how do the Thule workers react to Brink’s telling of the/ir story – and how does Brink react to them?
The unemotional approach is reinforced through the electronic soundtrack and the film’s detailed soundscape where, for example, the monotone sound of a 1980s typewriter creates a sense of insistent continuity – steadily progressing the story as Brink writes about and reports on his latest discoveries. The story of Brink’s quest for an answer to the question of whether Danish politicians lied to Greenlandic and Danish publics in relation to the 1968 crash is told through stripped-down cinematographic elements, emphasised in its dramaturgical structure. The film is orchestrated in a way that allows it to do several things: it is an interesting thriller about power and the abuse of power, it portraits an individual’s search for answers, and it functions as a document setting out a complex period in Danish and international politics.
At the end of the film, audiences might be left with the impression that, since H. C. Hansen’s letter of 1957, Denmark has – like Brink points out in the film – based its foreign policy on ‘one big lie’, in subservience to the much more powerful US. This has led many Danish historians and (ex-)political figures to criticise the film for being ‘too selective’ in its choice of historical facts. From their points of view, the problem with The Idealist lies in the fact that some historical circumstances, which might not fit the film’s overriding plot, are omitted or underplayed. Thereby, the film comes to cement certain myths about Denmark and Greenland’s position during the Cold War.
Yet it is important to remember that, as most fictional representations, although based on real events, the film is driven by particular cinematic choices. It is not a documentary – nor does it try to be.
Still, the film and the political reactions to the film have demonstrated that the Thule Affair remains a sensitive topic in Danish-Greenlandic relations. There are a number of reasons for this. First, Denmark has never apologised for deceiving Danish and Greenlandic publics about the presence of nuclear weapons in Greenland during the Cold War, which many Greenlanders and Danes think it should. The continued US military presence at Thule Air Base also acts as a current reminder of the powers at play. And amidst growing independence talks in Greenland, the relationship with Denmark is widely discussed. Second, Denmark has refused to release key environmental radiation records made at Thule in the aftermath of the 1968 crash. Third, in 1995, all Danes involved in the clean-up operation were awarded 50,000 DKK (£5,000) from the Danish government – although the Thule workers accepted this, the Danish government did not admit to any wrongdoings. Fourth, many Greenlanders claim that the ‘missing bomb’ is still present in or around Thule, although a recent report (2009) rejected this. Finally, Thule workers maintain that they have experienced a high degree of health problems, cancer and disabled children in particular – the exact reason that led Brink to pursue the story.
Aspects of this review will form part of a forthcoming book chapter by Royal Holloway colleagues Klaus Dodds and Rikke Bjerg Jensen on ‘Screening Greenland’. The chapter explores the intersection between film, popular geopolitics and geographical representations of Greenland, including geopolitical relationships, agents and objects, ecologies, and indigenous communities.
Rikke Bjerg Jensen