Day One Reviews

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March 5, 2008
As those of you who read my review of [i]Fat Man and Little Boy[/i] may recall, in my head, the role of J. Robert Oppenheimer in that film is played by David Strathairn. It isn't, of course. The role is played by Reg Barclay from various incarnations of [i]Star Trek[/i]. This, of course, is someone [i]completely[/i] different. However, in this version, he actually is. And, indeed, I think he does a better job, and I think that, in many ways, this is a more complicated and subtle film. The production values . . . well, it's made for HBO, so they aren't actually [i]bad[/i], but they aren't as good. It's hard to compare the casts. Each has a few people whom I consider among the greatest living actors--how do you decide which is the better cast, the one with David Strathairn or the one with Paul Newman? And this one was co-produced by [i]Aaron Spelling[/i].

We know the story, though this one starts with the last train out of Berlin and Nazi Germany and ends with Oppenheimer's new commitment to peace. There is less detail here about the work done and more detail about the wider implications; indeed, about the last five minutes is taken up with various of the players' reactions to the Bomb and its wider implications. We see the comments of Truman, Eisenhower, Einstein. We see Oppenheimer himself, a man who, throughout the film, has been in line with the government's goals, come to announce his desperate desire that the weapon never be used again against anyone. In time, he would lose his security clearance over his outspoken views on the subject.

As I said, there's a greater subtlety to this film than the other. We see more of the uncertainty of the project, not of its physics but of its morality. We see Oppenheimer as the willing, even eager, conduit between military authority and scientific uncertainty. As in any other telling of the story, of course, there is the ridiculous governmental belief that it's possible for scientists working in isolation from one another to produce groundbreaking work.

Oh, I know--you're going to cite Einstein and Galileo at me. But neither [i]did[/i] work in a scientific vacuum, and neither did the kind of applied physics that these men had to. Certainly we know that Einstein bounced ideas off other people, at least; it is less certain about Galileo, at least so far as I know. But both men had the work of others to base things on. Galileo had the work of Copernicus, for example.

I refuse to get pulled into a conversation about whether the Bomb should have been dropped; I've refused for years. There's too much uncertainty on either side. I don't know where I stand on the subject, and nothing any of you say will make me certain if the historical record cannot, I promise. What I have said, what I [i]know[/i], is that I would not have wanted to be the one to make the decision to drop the Bomb, and I would not have wanted to be one of the men who built it and therefore had to bear the psychological burden of those deaths. The movie is more about those choices than the physics.
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