Remember that scene in American Hustle when Jennifer Lawrence's character sticks some metal in the microwave? It starts a fire and Lawrence's character dismisses the entire technology, claiming that it zaps the nutrition out of food. She even has an article to back up her claim. Now the real life journalist who was quoted for that real life article is suing for $1 million, claiming libel and defamation.
"I read that it takes all of the nutrition out of our food," Lawrence's character tells Christian Bale's character in the movie that's set in the late 1970s. Microwaves were first becoming mainstream in the 1970s and people were concerned about all kinds of health effects from this new-ish household technology. Bale's character calls the claims bullshit and Lawrence replies, "It's not bullshit, I read it in an article, look," she says handing him a magazine. "By Paul Brodeur," she says.
What's the magazine? It's never named in the movie, but in real life Brodeur wrote a piece for The New Yorker and was interviewed for People magazine. Brodeur points to the People article where he doesn't claim that it zapped the nutrition from food. Rather, his contention in the interview (which you can read for yourself) was that microwave technology in the U.S. was still too unproven and leaky and that the risk of radiation exposure was high.
From the January 30, 1978 issue of People magazine:
In 1975 over 800,000 microwave ovens were sold in this country, more than the sales of gas ranges for the first time. Nobody knows for sure what constitutes a safe level of exposure to microwave radiation. Some studies indicate that effects of microwave radiation are cumulative. If so, the risk from repeated exposure for young children is high.
Brodeur was interviewed by People in 1978 because he had a new book out, called The Zapping of America, which elaborated on some of his fears about bringing microwaves into the American home. But the "zapping nutrition" angle wasn't his concern. In fact, household microwaves were really a side issue to much larger accusations of government conspiracy surrounding military applications of microwave technology.
From the February 2, 1978 review of The Zapping of America in the Harvard Crimson:
In addition to the mind-control applications, microwaves are being harnessed for what Brodeur dubs "total electronic warfare." Both the United States and the USSR are rapidly learning how to use microwaves to inflict severe burns on humans, as well as refining their surveillance, radar and rocket-jamming techniques. The microwave race spirals endlessly, leaking more radiation into the environment and into our bodies.
The most horrifying part of the story is that, despite Brodeur's seemingly comprehensive research and documentation, he himself claims to know only the "tip of the iceberg."
As Entertainment Weekly reports, the lawsuit insists "Paul Brodeur has never written an article or ever declared in any way that a microwave oven 'takes all the nutrition out of our food.'"
"By misquoting Mr. Brodeur in this manner, the Defendants have suggested to the audience that Mr. Brodeur made a scientifically unsupportable statement," the complaint says. "By attributing the untenable statement to Mr. Brodeur, Defendants have damaged his reputation."
If Brodeur wins the libel suit he also wants to get his name taken out of future copies of the movie. From a filmmaking perspective, this wouldn't actually be that difficult since we see Jennifer Lawrence's back when she's delivering the line: "By Paul Brodeur." It would be easy enough to loop in a different name, but it would no doubt rankle plenty of people. Messing with film history, especially for a movie nominated for Best Picture, really riles up movie nerds.
What actually happens when you put metal in a microwave? You can read all about it from Gizmodo's own Andy Tarantola.
[Update: The original headline to this post referred to a "real life scientist." Mr. Brodeur was a science journalist for the New Yorker.]
Image: Gif from the movie American Hustle by Andy Tarantola