by Morgan Phelps
Available from Acorn Media.
Film Monthly Home
Short Takes (Archived)
Small Screen Monthly
Behind the Scenes
New on DVD
Books on Film
What's Hot at the Movies This Week
If someone ruined the movie Titanic for you by saying, “The ship sinks,” then I’m going to ruin Day One for you by telling you it ends with the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan. I can get away with this because the end is inevitable if you have a remote knowledge of history. And the movie focuses not on the end, but on the means to an end, both of a war and a giant scientific and military undertaking.
The television film, based on the book Day One: Before Hiroshima and After by Peter Wyden, concentrates on the tension between the scientists creating the bomb and the government and military powers that plan to use it. This struggle between the scientific and military communities is exemplified in the characters of General Leslie Groves and theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer.
The script is powerful, but the brilliance of the film comes from the commitment of the lead actors to their characters and the addition this gives to the main conflict of the film. Brian Dennehy perfectly portrays Gen. Leslie Groves’ military arrogance and expertise on administrative efficiency. David Strathairn as J. Robert Oppenheimer is a believably arrogant and intelligent ass-kisser.
The inspiration for the project began Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard, who believes there is a way to split the atom, left Europe and convinced the U.S. military that Germany had the knowledge to build an A-bomb. The project was initially rejected by President Roosevelt and stalled by government bureaucracy. Once Gen. Groves is assigned to the project, bomb development, and in turn the movie, truly get moving.
The scientists were eager to have relatively unrestricted funding of a project yet reluctant to be subject to the regulations of the military. Minor issues like security and chatting about the project plagued the relationship between the military and academia from the beginning as Groves traveled between New York, Washington D.C., Chicago and Berkley to gather minds for the project. When Oppenheimer proposed one secure site for all involved in the project to work together, the Los Alamos Laboratory was born.
The nation’s top physicists were brought to New Mexico under the guidance of Oppenheimer and Groves. Oppenheimer began as purely a theoretician and had a lot to prove to men more experienced in the field. The scientists also had a lot to prove to the military men who called them crackpots and often questioned their use of government money with few results. Oppenheimer’s open mind in a project resting largely on mere theory and speculation opened the doors for an alternative theory by inexperienced scientist Niedermayer, who proposed implosion instead of explosion.
Since the Los Alamos team worked for several years and suffered countless setbacks as the implosion theory was enacted and perfected, writer David W. Rintels felt it necessary to fill the dead periods of time with the inquiry into the communist associations of Oppenheimer and many of his colleagues. This plot-filler took up far too much time in the film and seemed to exist only to bring the wives of the men into the story.
Although the President’s team and the Los Alamos crew spent much of the film arguing over the project, the final division of ideals came to a head when it came to actually using the bomb, which occurred in the last half hour of the film. All talks and moral dilemmas were in theory until the Trinity test occurred and the project proved to be a “success.” As the sky lit up and a mushroom cloud ballooned, the scientists joy quickly faded. Oppenheimer’s colleague Kenneth Bainbridge captures this moment perfectly by saying, “Now we’re all sons of bitches.” It’s at this point in the movie the scientists and military truly divide. Military leaders and politicians were ecstatic and saw themselves as saving countless American lives if they dropped the bomb on Japan, but physicists believed by creating the bomb they were responsible for killing thousands of Japanese civilians.
Gen. Groves allows his arrogance to take over in the final stages of the project and surges forward with two bombings despite a petition drafted by Szilard discouraging the use of the bomb. Even Oppenheimer, whose heart and reputation relied on the project, was scared by the Trinity test. The scientific community involved in the project concerned themselves with the moral ramifications of the bomb long before the military or government that only began to reflect after Hiroshima was hit. Their reaction can be summed up into Enola Gay Commander Robert Lewis’s question, “My God, what have we done?” This question plagued military officials and all the scientists on the project as they began to see the devastation they caused.
The film compresses over a decade of physicists’ work into two and a half hours. Although it’s not literally action-packed, a mental and moral struggle fills nearly every minute of the film with intensity. The ending, although no surprise, is a perfect collision in the struggle between scientific theory and military maneuvers.
Morgan Phelps is a student, writer and photographer living in Chicago.
Got a problem? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org