War Movie Mondays: ‘Fat Man and Little Boy’

This week’s pick is the 1989 drama directed by Roland Joffe Fat Man and Little Boy which were the code names given to the two atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan, ending the war in the Pacific during World War II. The film stars Paul Newman in a tour de force role as Gen. Leslie Groves, the military head of what was to be known as the “Manhattan Project.”

The film also stars Dwight Schultz (better known for his role on the hit TV show The A-Team playing Murdock) as J. Robert Oppenheimer, the brilliant physicist which brought the scientific minds together to help create the project. Rounding out the cast is John Cusack (Michael Merriman) who is a young physicist who acts as the film’s narrator while keeping a secret journal of his time in the New Mexico countryside while research and development of the “gadget” was underway.

The film is a brilliant examination of how the hypothetical became reality. Groves and Oppenheimer begin pulling in some of the best minds in the world who are eager to create a super weapon which will smash the Nazi’s hold throughout Europe. Ironically, Hitler’s own notions of racial purity drove some of Europe’s greatest minds to England and the United States to help the allies come up with an atomic device that would grant them the terms to wage war on the aggressors.

Many of the scenes show how the scientists met crushing deadlines, near fatal accidents with high explosives, radioactive materials, and whether or not the $2 billion project was ethical in the hands of military men like Groves, and what the fate of the world would be with such an awesome new weapon?

Believing that the Germans are very close to perfecting their own atomic program, Groves has a nineteen month time table to produce a working prototype that can show the axis that the U.S. will emerge the victor by ending the war, and possibly deter future wars. With such a fatal timetable, men such as Oppenheimer, Merriman, and countless others turn the impossible into a reality and meet their mid summer, 1945 deadline.

As the war in Europe ended on May 8th 1945, many believed that the project would be terminated and other practical applications pursued with the recent developments, but history had its own plans for the project and the bomb would be used to bring the Japanese to the surrender table now. Japan was a militaristic dictatorship which had ruled the Far East under the yoke of conquest for nearly two decades. The only way to convince them that continuing the war was futile, a one-two punch was needed to get them to realize the terrible weapon that the U.S. had devised.

Tensions mount and with the death of president Franklin Roosevelt who gave the project a green light, a new administration under newly elected president Harry S. Truman decides what to do with the $2 billion secret government project. Groves becomes more on edge as does Oppenheimer who faces personal demons which make him begin to question whether or not he can finish the project. Groves continually dissuades Oppenheimer’s attempts to abandon the project and that they owe it to the countless American lives who are affected by the tyrannical policies of the Japanese. Groves wants the weapon and is determined to get it from the “egg heads” at any cost.

The best scene in the film is the test site for the gadget which was known as “Trinity”, on the outskirts of New Mexico’s Alamogordo Desert on the morning of July 16th, 1945. Bad weather and the possible threat of igniting the atmosphere were on the minds of the scientists and military who were fearful of a dud. The outcome was a successful detonation which is shown reflecting off the welding glasses of Oppenheimer and company in a forward observation bunker a few miles from ground zero. Oppenheimer and his team of scientists rejoice that their work off almost two years has paid off.

At the same time, a real life petition was circulating among many of the scientists and colleagues in various parts of the country who wanted to speak with the president and form a committee who would determine the future of atomic weapons research/use, and how this technology could fall into the hands of radical factions like Soviet Russia, who were fearful of the allie’s victorious carving up of Western Europe. Many of the scientists feared the next world war would become a nuclear holocaust.

Fat Man and Little Boy is an excellent film with excellent actors re-creating one of history’s greatest chapters which changed the world forever. Legendary Italian composer Ennio Morricone (The Man with No Name Trilogy, The Untouchables) creates a beautiful soundtrack, while famed cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Deer Hunter) photographs each scene with a distinctive style all his own.

The Manhattan Project gave the world the threat of nuclear weaponry, but it also shortened the most violent war in human history. The dropping of the two bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6th and 9th, 1945 was a horrible ordeal, but it saved millions of allied lives who were attempting a home invasion of Japan which would have escalated the war for several more years. The dropping of the bombs was the only way to force the Japanese to rethink their terms for surrender and to obied by world opinion which wanted to see peace among nations.

Fat Man and Little Boy is available on DVD through Paramount Home Video & Netflix.

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