PU-239 Review

Plutonium 239 (or Pu-239) is one of the fissile isotopes used to make nuclear weapons; it's also the title of a thoughtful and frightening new movie from writer-director Scott Z. Burns.

Countless films made in the last decade have centered on the terrors of nuclear material -- all of them, to the best of my knowledge, focusing on the lurid threat of a massive explosion. PU-239, however, takes a different tack; it deals with nuclear horrors on a much smaller scale.

PU-239 starts with an act of bravery. A man named Timofey (Paddy Considine), a technician at a Russian nuclear facility, exposes himself to a massive dose of radiation in order to fix a leak from a decrepit pipe. But rather than receive compensation for his heroism, Timofey's superiors instead ask him to sign a statement admitting poor judgment for his part in containing the leak and lie to him about the amount of radiation he was exposed to, telling him it was much less than it was. When Timofey realizes the real extent of his exposure, and the grim prognosis for his survival, he's anguished over what to do to take care of his wife Marina (Radha Mitchell) and their young son. As the effects of radiation poisoning take hold of him, befogging his head and blurring the lines between right and wrong, Timofey steals 10 grams of Pu-239 from his former workplace and heads to Moscow to sell it on the black market.

Timofey is an unlikely hero. He is, after all, a terrorist of sorts. But Timofey's love for his wife and son runs deep and that's what PU-239 is really about -- love. Timofey is determined to do whatever he can to smooth the way for his loved ones in a new Russia that's nearly as unkind as the old one.

The same goes for Shiv (Oscar Isaac), the Moscow street hood who convinces Timofey he can find a buyer for the plutonium. Shiv's life is at once drab and brutal. The gang of thugs he runs with are savage morons, and his girlfriend, and the mother of his son, is a prostitute who's desperate to leave Shiv and their son behind if it means a way out of the gutter. Yet Shiv loves his girlfriend, and he loves his son even more. Just like Timofey, Shiv is willing to do whatever he can to ease the burden of living in Russia from the shoulders of his son.

It takes tremendous skill for a screenwriter to weave these story threads together in a way that's not only riveting but also emotionally credible. Burns's script does just that. His work as a director is no less impressive. He brings the streets of Moscow alive in a way I've never seen before. The sight of its teeming markets, traffic-choked highways, and dazzling skyline are striking. Burns captures a Moscow that's as impressive and metropolitan as New York, London, or Paris.

PU-239 also benefits greatly from its actors. The most recognizable faces are those of Mitchell and Considine, both of whom deliver moving performances. The sadness of their lives is evident in their faces, but so too is the spark of their tender feelings. Isaac also excels in his role. In his first scenes, he's nothing more remarkable than a fast-talking street hustler, but as the story unfolds, he becomes increasingly desperate to make a deal. Accordingly, his eyes and gestures are progressively shifty and fraught. In all, Isaac's embodiment of Shiv helps the story immensely.

PU-239 isn't likely to find much of an audience, especially here in the United States. It's a minor-key drama whose heroes are morally compromised Russians. Regardless, those who do see PU-239 will be glad they did.

Aka The Half Life of Timofey Berezin.

If the plutonium doesn't kill you, the smoking will.


Facts and Figures

Run time: 97 mins

In Theaters: Saturday 17th November 2007

Distributed by: Picturehouse


Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 57%
Fresh: 4 Rotten: 3

IMDB: 7.0 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director: Scott Z. Burns

Producer: Miranda de Pencier, Guy J. Louthan, Charlie Lyons, Vlad Paunescu

Starring: as Timofey, as Shiv, Valeriu Pavel Dan as Red Army Hero, Kenneth Bryans as Prusokov, as Marina