Picks and Pans Review: Fat Man and Little Boy

updated 11/06/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/06/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

Paul Newman, Dwight Schultz

Seeing this film about the development of the atomic bomb is a very good idea, but it requires a bit of psyching up. The movie's subject is obviously as ominous as they come. The treatment ranges from sober to heavy as lead. What we have here is Dr. Strangelove without the jokes.

Few films, though, are this challenging or show such respect for their audience.

The film, titled for the nicknames of the two weapons dropped on Japan at the end of World War II, was directed by Roland (The Killing Fields) Joffe, who is—more power to him—clearly not into fluff. He and co-writer Bruce (Withnail and I) Robinson have approached their emotionally, intellectually loaded subject with, one big exception aside, a striking evenness.

They confront the arguments against creation of the bomb: that Japan seemed defeated by the time it was ready for use; that there was uncertainty over its after-effects; that if the U.S. stopped the bomb project, the vague possibility existed that the age of nuclear weapons would not begin. But they also address the counterarguments: that Japan still had the capacity to inflict terrible casualties and remained, in any case, responsible for the war in the Pacific; that any scientific discovery carries a risk; that the theoretical knowledge of how to make atomic weapons meant their practical invention was inevitable.

Humanizing these concerns wasn't easy, but Joffe and Robinson do it, with the considerable aid of their cast.

We take Newman for granted: You open a bottle of Château Lafite Rothschild, you expect a great wine; you put Paul Newman in a movie, you expect a great performance. But here he creates a memorably difficult character, Leslie "Dick" Groves, the Army general who, having supervised construction of the Pentagon, oversaw the bomb project. People may question how faithful to the real Groves the character is, but Newman certainly makes him a sharply defined, convincing man—one who is limited in abstract intellect but is a shrewd, manipulative officer whose sense of ego and duty are often interchangeable. (Newman knew when to draw the line; he didn't try to physically duplicate Groves, who at 5'11" weighed about 250 lbs.)

Schultz (The A-Team) plays Robert Oppenheimer, the young (38) physicist chosen by Groves to run the science part of the project. He has the tougher role, and if he seems super-humanly neurotic at times, he is mostly impressive.

Oppenheimer, still a controversial figure, was a physics genius but often a dunce in his personal life. (While he was married, he resumed a long-standing affair after the project began; his mistress, Jean Tatlock, was a Communist.)

Newman never has to deal with a crisis of conscience—Groves, as portrayed here, never questions his orders. ("Give me the bomb!" he tells Schultz in a moment of frustration.) Schultz has to try to cope with Oppenheimer's doubts as he and his fellow scientists begin to realize how they are changing the world. "You oughtta stop playing God," the project doctor finally says to Schultz. "You're not good at it, and the position is taken." One of the film's few trivializing lapses comes when Bonnie Bedelia, as Schultz's wife, sputters at him, "Nothing counts for you anyway except the damn bomb."

John Cusack plays a project scientist who dies from radiation effects after an accident. The accident never happened in reality, and using an invented incident as a symbol of the bomb's potential for harm seems an ugly bit of cheating. Cusack's youth and his scenes with Laura Dern, as a nurse who falls in love with him, seem designed to connect the events of 1942-45 with the future. The rest of the movie serves that purpose quite well, however, even if it's not so explicit.

The ending, of course, is a foregone conclusion. The questions that are crucial—questions that this movie for the most part addresses eloquently—have to do with what lies beyond that first terrible fireball. (PG-13)

From Our Partners