There's terrible beauty all over "Pu-239," a powerful new HBO film about a dying Russian man trying to sell weapons-grade plutonium on the streets of Moscow to help his family. The story is about his selfless heroism as much as it is about his selfishness in a cowardly, ugly system. The cinematography is gorgeous and meticulous as much as it is a full-on dose of dark gray Eastern European bleakness. "Pu-239" gets profoundly grim, its characters become morally twisted, and its apocalyptic message is alarming, and yet the drama remains a touching profile of human devotion in extremis.
To be accurate, the movie, which premieres tonight at 8, gives us two heroes in post-Soviet Russia. Timofey (Paddy Considine) is the nuclear-plant worker whose successful effort to stop a meltdown poisons him with deadly amounts of radiation. When, as a PR move, plant officials put him on "indefinite leave" to investigate the "alleged accident," Timofey steals 100 grams of plutonium hoping to make $30,000 for his wife (Radha Mitchell) and 7-year-old son. He is deteriorating hourly, with his hair falling out and his breathing strained, but his drive to provide one last gift only grows.
The second, unexpected hero is a thug named Shiv (Oscar Isaac), who is also in dire straits. Shiv owes a debt to a menacing mob boss, and his hours are numbered. He wants to make a fast pile of money, grab his prostitute girlfriend and the boy he believes is his son, and find a new life elsewhere. With his cheap red-leather jacket and his talk about America to his son, Shiv fancies himself a bigshot. But he's just not heartless enough to prevail on the streets. Every crook he deals with can smell his humanity, and he gets kicked around a lot.
The movie, written and directed by Scott Z. Burns based on a short story by Ken Kalfus, stirs up some rich themes just by putting these two very different men in each other's paths. Timofey is a gentle man reaching down into the world of crime; Shiv is a hood reaching up, wanting to pull himself to higher ground for his son. They both wind up somewhere in the middle of modern morality, wanting to be responsible to someone, but then forced to be irresponsible elsewhere in the process. As Timofey's health continues to fail, and his hands turn beet red, Shiv also becomes increasingly weakened by repeated beatings. They are incompetent when it comes to selling the Pu-239 (which Shiv calls "poo"), and that failing is their most endearing quality.
"Pu-239," which was executive produced by Steven Soderbergh, George Clooney, and Peter Berg, is a small movie, despite its global implications. It's very far from being a disaster film. The strength of the story comes from the way it carefully zeroes in on Timofey and Shiv as the clock ticks. Both lead actors are impressive, too, although Isaac has the showier moments as Shiv. His monologue to his son about Jesse James, Jesse Jackson, Michael Jackson, and blacks in America is a sharp piece of both scripting and acting. Considine projects a weightier, more subtle presence, unhindered by the fact that Timofey is so fatigued. He is exhausted, but still moving forward.