The creation of the atomic bomb is an event that will be analyzed and discussed for generations to come. Was the success of the Manhattan Project a triumph or a disaster? Was the use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki right or wrong? What did the people working on the Project believe about their actions?
Many films have attempted to examine the thoughts and actions of those who worked at the Los Alamos Laboratory and other facilities around the country. One of these, the Emmy-winning Day One, is heading to DVD on November 13.
The film focuses far more heavily on the scientists and their overseer, General Leslie Groves (Brian Dennehy), than it does on the science behind the splitting of the atom and the creation of the bomb. It also includes scenes with military and government personnel weighing the decision to use the bomb or not. By examining the men, their thoughts, opinions, and world views, the film is also able to examine the political factors that helped shape the decision to drop the first atomic bombs.
Though an ensemble piece, the film focuses itself most heavily on Groves and his relationship with the scientists, particularly, J. Robert Oppenheimer (David Strathairn), whom Groves put in charge of the Los Alamos facility. Also playing large roles in the film are Michael Tucker as Leo Szilard, and Tony Shaloub as Enrico Fermi. David Ogden Stiers appears as FDR in the film while Hume Cronyn takes on the role of James Byrnes, Director of the Office of War Mobilization and then Truman's Secretary of State. The cast is a strong one and up to the task of presenting these historical figures in a human light.
The film is very careful to not take a side as to the appropriateness of dropping the bomb. It goes into great detail and features numerous high-level meetings about the whether or not the bomb should be dropped, but does not take a strong stance of its own. Rather, the work seems to exist in order to push the question into the viewer's mind and make it known that those involved with the bomb's creation wondered the same thing.
The film suggests that rational, intelligent, men can have very different opinions about the same act. Characters on both sides of the issue make strong points about the pros and cons of unleashing an atomic weapon on Japan. If, in the film, Groves appears to be blind to arguments against the use of the atomic bomb it is not because he is unthinking or uncaring, but rather because he is convinced of the necessity of the weapon. If people with the opposite opinion, like Szilard, seem vehement in their belief that the bomb should not be dropped, and unwilling to listen to the other side it is because they fervently believe other, viable, options to be available.
With a runtime of just under two and a half hours, Day One is able to do justice to the debate of the use of the bomb, but at the expense of an in-depth look at the science behind it. The film does feature numerous scenes of experiments and discussions on the logistics of the creation of the weapon. However, what is taking place during some of these experiments can be hard to grasp due to a lack of explanation on the film's part. Were Day One to provide the necessary explanations, the film's runtime would quite easily mushroom to more than three hours in length, and much of the power of the personalities involved would be lost.
Day One's exploration of the creation and employment of the first atomic bombs may not be entirely complete; the factors and people involved are too numerous for a single film to possibly encompass all of them. However, the filmmakers do a wonderful job with the portion of the story that Day One chooses to focus on — the scientists who created the bomb and the political discussions involved in the bomb's use. Everyone portrayed in the film is a human being and therefore fallible.
When judging history, that is something we should all remember.