Fat Man and Little Boy
October 21, 2006
Roland Joffé, ,
Starring: Paul Newman, Dwight Schultz, Bonnie Bedelia, John Cusack, Laura Dern, Ron Frazier, John C. McGinley, Natasha Richardson, Ron Vawter, Michael Brockman, Del Close, John Considine, Allan Corduner, Joe D'Angerio, Jon DeVries, ,
Released in 1989, Fat Man and Little Boy was a fictionalized account of The Manhattan Project, a top-secret military mission that created the first atomic bomb. The film was considered a costly commercial failure and critics weren’t too crazy about it either. It promptly faded into obscurity. Paramount Pictures has recently put the movie out on DVD, inviting a reappraisal of its merits and relevance 15 years later.
Nine months after Pearl Harbor, the pressure is on for the U.S. government to bring about a quick end to World War II. Leslie R. Groves (Newman) is a gung-ho Army General itching to get to the front lines of the war and make a difference. His superiors see him as an engineer that would be more effective working behind the scenes. Groves meets a scientist in Chicago who tells him about a scientific theory that provides the starting point for what would become the atomic bomb. Groves meets with Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer (Schultz), a brilliant scientist, and tells him about his plan to assemble a working A-bomb. He needs Oppenheimer to assemble a team of the best scientists in the world and give them a focus.
The Manhattan Project, as it became to be known, was established on a military base in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Oppenheimer and his team had 19 months to create a working A-bomb from scratch. Pretty soon Groves and Oppenheimer disagree about how his team works. The General thinks only in terms of strict military protocol and maintaining the utmost secrecy so that the enemy doesn’t find out what they are up to, while the scientist wants the freedom for all departments to be able to talk openly and share ideas.
Paul Newman is excellent as the gruff, no-nonsense Groves. He’s a shrewd tactician who talks to his team of scientists like a football coach giving his players a pep talk. Newman delivers a layered performance as he reveals Groves to be a man not afraid to make enemies within the government if it means standing up for what he thinks is right. However, he also withholds crucial information from his team to get his desired results.
Dwight Schultz, known mostly as Howling Mad Murdock on the popular ’80s TV show, The A-Team and as the bumbling Barclay on Star Trek: The Next Generation in the ’90s, is cast against type as Oppenheimer. He plays his character with the right mix of brilliance and arrogance. Schultz portrays the famous scientist as a flawed figure torn between his duty to his country and his devotion to science.
John Cusack is a young scientist (who did not actually exist in real life) who plays a crucial role in the A-bomb’s creation. He provides the film’s clumsy voiceovers that tend to unnecessarily spell things out. His role is that of the everyman, the audience surrogate.
Laura Dern and Bonnie Bedelia are relegated to the sidelines for the most part, thus wasted in their respective roles. The domestic scenes that they are in attempt to flesh out certain main characters but come across as rather flat and uninteresting compared to the rest of the movie. However, many of the supporting roles feature a talented cast of character actors like John C. McGinley, Natasha Richardson, and Todd Field.
None, not even a theatrical trailer. This is a shame considering that an hour-long ‘Making Of’ documentary was created by Charles Barbee and Michael Dante during production of the movie (you can read his recollections about it here: http://www.barbeefilm.com/fatman01.htm). To this day, it has never been shown publicly. Paramount really missed the boat not including this footage or having a featurette about the real people and events; to do so would put the film in some kind of context.
Fat Man and Little Boy is a flawed film but it does raise interesting moral and philosophical questions. The A-bomb ended World War II but at what cost? What kind of Pandora’s Box did it open? There are no easy answers to these questions-ones that we are still grappling with to this day.