Hiroshima Day this year will be on August 6, so we have provided this review of the film that
provides a marvelously detailed account of the events that led up to and
immediately followed the dropping of the two atom bombs .
Rated R. Running time: 3 hours 5 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 5; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 0.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
Death has come up into our windows, it has entered our palaces, to cut off the children from the streets and the young men from the squares.
I looked and there was a pale green horse! Its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed with him; they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, famine, and pestilence, and by the wild animals of the earth.
This riveting account of the days leading up to and immediately following the atom bombing of two Japanese cities is a joint Canadian/Japanese production for the Showtime TV network. Switching back and forth between Japanese leaders and the Allies’, especially President Truman and his staff, the film will remind viewers of what would happen if Clint Eastwood’s two films about the Battle of Iwo Jima Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima had been made as one film. Hiroshima is like what would have happened if Clint Eastwood’s two films about the Battle of Iwo Jima, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima, had been made as one film. This TV film is as long as two normal movies, actually being a two-part miniseries clocking in at 3 hours 6 minutes. And there’s not one dull minute in it, at least if you are at all interested in the details of how we entered the Atomic Age!
After a quick briefing on World War 2 history, the story begins in April 1945 with the then Vice President Truman (Kenneth Welsh) learning from Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House that President Roosevelt has died. Because the late President had not confided in Truman or allowed him to sit in on various meetings, the new President is totally in the dark about the ultra-secret atom bomb project or post-War planning. Everyone is skeptical that the new Commander-in-Chief is up to the job, one reporter sarcastically suggesting that Truman doesn’t even know the way to the White House. In Tokyo the Japanese leaders express joy over Roosevelt’s death and speculate what impact this new leader, about whom they know next to nothing, will have on the War.
One of Truman’s first acts is to ask his good friend and mentor while he while he was in the Senate, Senator James Byrnes, to be Secretary of State. Byrnes had been a close ally of Roosevelt, so he was the best man to bring the new President up to speed. Truman’s surprise upon learning of the Manhattan Project is ironical, in that later at Potsdam he tells Soviet premier Stalin about the Americans’ successful testing of the atomic bomb, Stalin shows no surprise. Stalin knew of the project before he did! The Soviets learned about the project, thanks to their spy Klaus Fuchs, a German-born but British citizen and physicist who had worked at Los Alamos.
The depiction of the discussions and debates on the two sides of the War is fascinating, showing that there were differences of opinions among both the Japanese and American leaders. In cabinet and military meetings U.S. Secretary of War Stimson (Wesley Addy), already bothered by the Allied policy of saturation and fire bombing raids in which tens of thousands of civilians were killed, is even more conscience stricken by the new atom bomb project. There is even discussion of whether it should be continued, with General Groves (Richard D. Masur), head of the Manhattan Project, arguing strongly in its favor. There are also scenes of Groves’ confrontations at Los Alamos with his chief physicist Dr. Robert Oppenheimer (Jeffrey De Munn), the latter also having moral qualms about the development and use of the bomb. Besides Groves, the other chief advocate for the bomb is Byrnes, who argues, “One of these Gadgets could end the war in one blow.” As a former senator he also is aware of the political fall out if the public were to learn that the government had spent $2 billion on a project that they had abandoned. Nuclear physicist Leo Szilard visits Byrnes with a petition from 73 other scientists’ signatures asking that the bomb not be dropped, but Byrnes does not show this to Truman.
In Japan it is evident that the new civilian government under the leadership of the aged new Prime Minister Suzuki (Tatsuo Matsumura) is at odds with the military leaders, chief among whom is Gen. Anami (Kohji Takahashi), constantly demanding that there be no surrender. During one of his speeches when he says that they will train everyone, from 9 year-old girls through all men and women to defend to the death their sacred homeland. We see newsreel shots of children and adult civilians being trained to use their wooden spears to repel the coming invaders. As the bombings and casualties increase Emperor Hirohito (Naohiko Umewaka) grows more troubled over the immense suffering of his people. Clearly not with the war party, he eventually agrees to a plan involving his cousin Prince Konoe (Kazuo Kato) to fly to Moscow and ask Stalin to broker a peace conference with the Allies. The “surrender unconditionally” clause of the American demand impedes the peace party’s efforts—they want to be sure that the Emperor will keep his throne. They had contacted the Russians weeks earlier, but the Soviets have stalled them, neither refusing their request nor agreeing to it.
In Washington debates continue, though after the President agrees to use the bomb, the dispute is over what cities should be targeted. The Target Committee includes the ancient capitol Kyoto on the list, but Sec. Stimson, whom we see in so many scenes being disrespected by colleagues, this time insists that Kyoto be removed. The military leaders push back, but Stimson stands his ground. It will be Hiroshima, Nagasaki, or a third alternative.
The Americans also argue over whether they should detonate one of the bombs somewhere as a demonstration, but they fear that the complex device “might be a dud,” which would destroy their credibility. It is important that the Japanese also believe that they have many atom bombs to destroy the whole country, rather than just three.
There is lot more debating, agonizing, and maneuvering on both sides of the Pacific before the horrific fall of the two bombs. The scenes showing the jubilation of the Americans over the destruction of Hiroshima stands in stark contrast to the terrible scenes of buildings being blown over, bodies burned, and aerial shots of the city showing most of the city as a collection of vacant lots. The militarists in Japan, even as Hiroshima is obliterated, still want to use all the children, women, and old men being trained in the use of spears to fight off the invaders, and when the Emperor’s recorded surrender message is carried on radio, a group of young officers even try to stage a coup. This film only mentions the coup, but if you want more on it, the events of the night of August 14 are dramatized in the film about General MacArthur and the US Occupation, Emperor.
Directors Roger Spottiswoode and Koreyoshi Kurahara have skillfully combined newsreels and drama scenes shot in either sepia or washed out color so that the two almost blend together. Interviews with scientists, U.S. airmen, Hiroshima victims, and others are interspersed throughout. As with the two Eastwood Iwo Jima films, there is even handedness, so that the film never descends into the jingoism of the old Hollywood WW 2 films. Scriptwriters John Hopkins and Toshiro Ishido must have done a huge amount of research to come up with the details involving so many historical characters.
Actor Kenneth Welsh really nails Harry Truman, showing him developing from the neglected VP who at first says that he feels like a heavy load has fallen on his head to the eager to learn executive who emerges as the confident Commander-in-Chief on whose decisions affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of people on both sides of the conflict. The Japanese actors, speaking with English subtitles at the bottom of the screen, are all convincing, especially Naohiko Umewaka as the calm Emperor and Takahashi as the militant Gen. Anami. It is a moving and sad moment when the General follows the time-honored custom of his ancestors after his government surrenders.
There is another dramatic film depicting the development of the Bomb, 1989’s Fat Man and Little Boy (this one depicting the scientists and military overseers developing it at Los Alamos), but the Showtime production is the superior one, both in acting (even though the earlier film starred Paul Newman as General Groves), production values, and due to the world-wide scope of the TV film. With the dropping of the first atomic bomb on a city the world changed forever. This informative film gives us a good behind the scenes peek into how the events unfolded, and a hint of the why. There were no super heroes on hand defending democracy, nor super villains—just flawed humans with values that they were willing to kill and die for.
Note: For my review of the film that depicts what happened in the streets of Hiroshima when the Bomb exploded see my review of Hiroshima: Out of the Ashes. Max Von Sydow plays the German priest who sheltered some of the victims in his church.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the August issue of VP.