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The Day After Trinity

The person who was most responsible for the creation of the atom bomb may have been the most unlikely. Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer was born in New York City in 1904, and studied at both Harvard (graduating Magna Cum Laude in just three years) and Cambridge before taking his Ph.D. in Germany at just 21 years old. But it was no secret that Oppenheimer had a liberal bent and was considered a political radical in some circles. However, he also was one of the foremost scientific geniuses of his generation, and when he became fascinated by the first splitting of the atom in 1939, U.S. Army Gen. Leslie Groves — the man in charge of the Manhattan Project — gave Oppenheimer free control of an important segment of the nation's nuclear program: the Los Alamos site in New Mexico, which was to house perhaps 30 scientists but eventually grew to host more than 5,000 researchers at the height of the American war effort. Jon Else's 1980 documentary The Day After Trinity (co-written by David Webb Peoples) recounts Oppenheimer's life, and in particular the Los Alamos colony, which was Oppenheimer's personal creation. In fact, while he may be remembered as the scientist who helped unlock the atom and turn it into a weapon of terrible mass destruction, what often is not known is that Oppenheimer was also a brilliant administrator, aware that in order to achieve results on a rapid timetable he would have to amass a variety of scientific personalities, maintain morale, and ensure that lines of communication remained open between all parties. As part of the largest, most expensive scientific research project in history, Los Alamos (code-named "Project Y") succeeded beyond most people's expectations, leading to the first nuclear blast on July 15, 1945 — at a nearby New Mexico site named "Trinity" by Oppenheimer from a poem by William Blake. A betting pool was formed, with physicist Enrico Fermi wagering the bomb would incinerate the entire state. But after the successful blast, matters were no longer controlled by the Los Alamos scientists, but rather Washington, and the impetus to use the bomb to conclude the war in the Pacific became unstoppable. For Oppenheimer, it led to many regrets. He told President Truman in 1946 that he had "blood on my hands," and he opposed the further development of the even-more-destructive hydrogen bomb. Such positions did not help his cause at the height of the Red Scare in the 1950s, and thanks in part to Sen. Joe McCarthy, Oppenheimer was stripped of his security clearances for alleged communist sympathies, and he would not work again for the U.S. government. In the end, he remained both a moralist and a pragmatist, declaring in an interview late in life that international arms-control negotiations started far too late — according to J. Robert Oppenheimer, they should have started "the day after Trinity." Jon Else's documentary offers a thorough look at its subject matter with standard narration, retrospective interviews, and archival footage. But it is the sort of film routinely produced by cable TV channels nowadays, and it does nothing to push the boundaries of documentary filmmaking. However, the powerful subject matter makes it worth a spin, and in particular color footage from the Trinity test, early photos of Oppenheimer and the Los Alamos colony, and films of atom bomb blasts and the later hydrogen detonations that Oppenheimer fiercely opposed. A good pick for history buffs and folks interested in the dawn of the nuclear age. Image Entertainment's bare-bones DVD release of The Day After Trinity features a good full-frame transfer (1.33:1) from an acceptable, if aging, source-print, with audio in DD 1.0. Chapter-selection, keep-case.

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