Docudrama on the development of the first atomic bomb. Told from the perspective of a film recovered from a time capsule several hundred years into the future, the story is narrated by Robert Oppenheimer (Hume Cronyn) and Major General Leslie Groves (Brian Donlevy) beginning with the Nazis stated goal of developing an atomic bomb. Along with Britain and Canada, the U.S. reacts by beginning its own atomic program. The major developments are all presented: Fermi's successful atomic chain reaction; building the huge complex at Oak Ridge, Tenn.; the production of the first supply of plutonium; the testing in the Nevada desert; and finally the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Written by
Americans were almost as shocked by the emergence of the terrible new atomic weapon as anyone. Naturally as the surprise wore off the public became curious about the bomb's backstory since the development was one of the most closely guarded secrets of the war. This MGM production was one of the first to bring that secret history into neighborhood theatres.
Of course, being Hollywood and concerned with box office, liberties were taken as the credit crawl states. Nonetheless, the account seems a reasonable one from tentative beginnings to worrisome testing to final delivery. The movie gives some attention to the moral reservations involved, but these are over-ruled by the belief that if we don't get the bomb first, the Nazis will.
The film was made during that brief interval between the end of the World War and the onset of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. As a result, the script is freed from political constraints that would have colored the account had it been made, say, five years later. Thus there's a hopeful air that the new technology will be used for peaceful purposes now that war has become "unthinkable".
Perhaps the film's chief value lies in just that sort of comparison between the onset of the nuclear age and present day. In fact, war was not made obsolete by nuclear technology, but limits were placed on how far the combatants should go in pursuing their aims. Even so, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 came apparently within a hair's breadth of a nuclear outbreak, while civil defense drills of the 1950's emphasized surviving a nuclear exchange. Clearly, the Cold War had not fulfilled the hopes expressed in the film.
Note also the welcoming line accorded the moguls from America's major industries, e.g. General Electric, who were being recruited to help with the project. Cynics might regard the coming together of big government and private industry as the symbolic beginning of the now notorious "military-industrial complex" that dominates so much of the contemporary economy. Note also how easily government seizes property and relocates its owners to other locales. Here the seizure is portrayed in a cooperative and problem-free manner for understandable reasons. The subtext, however, clearly implies the growth of government in the name of national security.
The film itself understandably plays up a human interest angle by inserting the two young men, Walker and Drake, and their girls at various points. Actually, the screenplay does this pretty skillfully without interrupting the flow, that might otherwise become a distraction. My one complaint is the final scene which really is spread on with an unnecessary ladle, replete with heavenly choir, etc. It's clear that the producers wanted the audience to exit on a decidedly reassuring note following the distressing scenes of a nuclear-devastated Hiroshima and the onset of a threatening new age.
Too bad that the film has become so obscure. Critics largely dismissed the film because of its sentimental side, especially the last scene. However, as an historical artifact, the movie may outrank the value of any other of that year. On the whole, the screenplay puts difficult events in a positive light, but by no means does it overlook the moral dilemmas that arise at key points. In short, it's no whitewash of the complex decisions taken.All in all, whatever one's views on the ethical issues, the film provides an important snapshot of how the nuclear age was first presented to an anxious audience in a popular forum. And in that important sense, the strip of film amounts to more than just another movie.
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