Fat Man and Little Boy

fatmanFrom 1943 to 1945, one of the extraordinary stories of this century was playing itself out in the scrub desert of New Mexico; in a hastily assembled and isolated complex at Los Alamos, a group of the country’s greatest scientists were building a bomb. Or, to put it more precisely, the bomb.

The breakneck development of the atomic bomb in those months is a thrilling story of science and morality. It has been dramatized before, notably for television in Oppenheimer and Day One. Fat Man and Little Boy now joins the list.

Like previous treatments, the new film focuses on the incredible intellectual detective work that went into the creation of the bomb, as well as the ethical agony of Robert Oppenheimer, the brilliant scientist who headed the project. The problem for Oppenheimer and the other scientists was that they were breaking exciting new ground, but they were also opening a Pandora’s Box that could never be closed again, and they knew it.

The script, by director Roland Joffe and Bruce Robinson, makes central the testy relationship between Oppenheimer (played by Dwight Schultz) and Gen. Leslie Groves (Paul Newman), the no­-nonsense Army man who was responsible for riding herd over the staggeringly expensive project. The movie is at its best when it pits these two crafty talkers against each other, despite the fact that they’re on the same side.

Oddly, the film veers away from this interesting pairing. Much of the middle section concerns a young scientist (John Cusack) who’s keeping a diary of the experience and also keeping time with a nurse (Laura Dern). There’s nothing wrong with this material – I assume much of it is fictionalized – but why is it so prominent? Were the filmmakers worried that two personalities as thorny as Oppenheimer and Groves couldn’t hold an audience’s sympathy, or interest?

As a director, Roland Joffe (The Killing Fields, The Mission) is better known for his facility with broad, sweeping sequences than for his storytelling ability. That holds true here. For the first hour of Fat Man, Joffe establishes almost no rhythm at all; the action is choppy. The two women in Oppenheimer’s life, his wife (Bonnie Bedelia) and mistress (Natasha Richardson), appear as extended footnotes. It almost feels like a three-hour movie cut down to two hours.

A lot of the later material works better, in part because of the inherent suspense surrounding the first bomb test. Joffe gets some good individual scenes; the morning darkness of the first blast, where the countdown to detonation is accompanied by an accidental radio pick-up of The Nutcracker Suite, is terrific.

At one point, Groves and Oppenheimer take in a ballet performance of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the significance of which, man toying with magical properties that are quickly beyond his control, seems obvious. But that same principle describes the film. This movie is also playing with something powerful, but can’t quite come to grips with it.

First published in the Herald, October 20, 1989

I still remember the Nutcracker Suite sequence. Other than that, I remember meaning to devote more time in this review to the curious casting imbalance: “Who’ve you got for Groves?” “Paul Newman, isn’t that great?” “Yeah, so who’s playing Oppenheimer?” “Oh, the guy from The A-Team.” Nothing against Dwight Schultz, a good actor (lately doing almost exclusively voice work and, according to Wikipedia, conservative radio). Just interesting. The supporting cast is interesting even beyond those mentioned here. Music by Ennio Morricone, photography by Vilmos Zgismond.

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