Fat Man and Little Boy (1989)

Matthew Callan

The viewer is left feeling that the Manhattan Project would have been a fantastic topic for a miniseries, but is an awful one for a 120-minute studio flick.

Fat Man and Little Boy

Director: #233;
Cast: Paul Newman, Dwight Schultz, John Cusack, Laura Dern, Bonnie Bedelia, Natasha Richardson
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Paramount
Display Artist: Roland Joffé
First date: 1989
US DVD Release Date: 2004-04-27

In the last days of World War II, my grandfather was set to be in the first wave of the Japanese invasion. Why his division would have been told this, I have no idea, since it was a virtual death sentence and knowing such a thing couldn't have been good for morale. But Hiroshima and Nagasaki precluded the need for an invasion, and he was able to set foot on Japanese soil as an occupier, not an infantryman. I have often pondered the fact that, were it not for the atom bomb, there is a strong possibility I would never have been born. Of course, to believe this, I have to buy the conventional (American) wisdom that says Japan would never have surrendered were it not for the one-two punch of Fat Man and Little Boy. Having read many historically revisionist accounts of the "Good War," I'm not sure how much I believe in this argument.

If you have similarly ambivalent feelings, Fat Man and Little Boy will not help you reconcile them. The 1989 film fictionalizes the Manhattan Project, the group of scientists, engineers, and soldiers who struggled to beat the Germans to nuclear fission in a top-secret village in Los Alamos, New Mexico. The scientists -- many of them refugees from a Europe overrun by fascists -- are shown dealing with the evil they are about to unleash on the world, witnessing first-hand horrifying effects of radiation poisoning, and generally sacrificing their marriages, their happiness, and their morality in order to win the war. But all of this is too much for such a small space. By the end, the viewer is left feeling that the Manhattan Project would have been a fantastic topic for a miniseries, but is an awful one for a 120-minute studio flick.

The cast of characters is enormous, and few receive enough development or screen time. The philosophical dilemma inherent in the construction of the bomb is almost entirely confined to a battle of wills between Robert Oppenheimer (Dwight Schultz), head scientist on the Project, and General Leslie Groves (Paul Newman), his military overseer. Groves is a career military man who is given the Manhattan Project as a consolation prize for missing out on the real action. Oppenheimer is a lefty physicist from Berkeley with Communist connections. Can this Odd Couple pull together to build the atom bomb?

Such a nigh-sitcom-level premise is only as good as the actors it employs, and in this sense, Fat Man is successful. The movie stands tallest in the scenes between the two men, as they struggle, butt heads, and eventually realize that each needs the other to get what he wants. Newman is incapable of a bad performance, and his Groves, though gruff and grizzled, is not the military stereotype he might have been in other hands. Groves despises Oppenheimer's politics and the sniveling scientists underneath him who question the Project's morality, but he also knows that the Project needs Oppenheimer. He's also smart enough to coddle "Oppie" into submission. Newman plays the General somewhere along a continuum of George S. Patton, Tony Soprano, and Mephistopheles.

Similarly good is Dwight Schultz. (If you were kid in the 1980s, you may remember him as "Mad Dog" Murdock on The A-Team; this isn't the kind of credential that inspires much confidence, but he's excellent here.) Oppenheimer had to reassure the scientists working for him that moral issues were being discussed at higher levels, while showing Groves that he could keep the workers in line (a daunting prospect for a lifelong Socialist). The real-life Oppenheimer was a privileged bohemian with imperious airs and pretentious tastes, and Schultz manages to show this without painting it too broadly -- the way he holds his cigarettes and his mannered speech are enough. He also captures the torture that Oppenheimer went through while working to build such a devastating weapon.

However, Schultz and Newman can't save a mess of a script by Bruce Robinson and Roland Joffé (who also directed). If the screenplay is to be believed, the scientists of the Manhattan Project must have divided their time equally between splitting the atom and having cocktail parties. Advances in the bomb's development all happen off camera, are mentioned in passing, or come in preternatural bursts of inspiration (a scientist eating an orange inspires the bomb's implosion principle). And so the struggle to build the bomb is presented as less a feat of theoretical physics and engineering and more like a bunch of people standing around one tiny spot, hoping for lightning to strike.

A doomed romance between scientist Michael Merriman (John Cusack) and nurse Kathleen Robinson (Laura Dern) barely registers amid the chaos of engineers running across the desert sand and highly accented protests against the production of the bomb (apart from Oppenheimer, the scientists seem to be comprised exclusively of excitable foreigners). Just when Merriman and Robinson are ready to hook up, he irradiates himself in a lab experiment, though he saves the other scientists in the room through his heroics. The filmmakers are to be applauded for showing the gruesome effects of radiation poisoning through this accident, trying to bring home what was in store for the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The attempt is compromised, however, when one realizes that Merriman never existed, and that no such incident occurred during the Manhattan Project. Though the character is very loosely based on Louis Slotin, a Canadian scientist who suffered a similar fate at Los Alamos in 1946, it seems a stretch for a purportedly historical movie, and a cheap one at that.

There are a few interesting touches from director Joffé, whose filmography includes such heights as The Killing Fields (1984) and such lows as Super Mario Brothers (1993), though he's been wisely "uncredited" for the latter. Each scene seems to have its own ironic propaganda poster hovering in the background, as when excited engineers run off to report another breakthrough, scurrying away under a billboard reading "THIS IS THE ENEMY." The New Mexico desert is filmed in all its silent, windblown, Wile E. Coyote strangeness. I'm not sure if it's the locale or the military context, but everything in this movie looks khaki colored (in his review of the film's initial release, Roger Ebert wrote that its hues were more Godfather than Georgia O'Keefe). Too much of Joffé's work, however, seems to fall into the nostalgia trap of World War II flicks -- lots of Glenn Miller and sharp-looking uniforms, and too many rough corners smoothed over.

It's a bad idea to look to a movie, any movie, for answers to complicated moral questions. I certainly don't envy the filmmakers' task, trying to squeeze such enormous history into such a small package. But in any endeavor, bomb-making or filmmaking, the results are more important than the intentions behind them. And Fat Man and Little Boy, despite some bravura performances, is found wanting.

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