[box cover]

Fat Man and Little Boy

With the serious, and occasionally sublime, back-to-back Oscar contenders The Killing Fields (1984) and The Mission (1986), director Roland Joffé nearly fooled everyone into believing that a major new epicmaker of great consequence had arrived. Just as quickly, however, Joffé's promise unraveled, beginning with this mangled "historical" drama about the creation of the atomic bomb, which, sadly, bears less resemblance to the solemn purpose of his previous films than it foreshadows the misguided silliness of his subsequent change of genre, Super Mario Bros. (1993). Fat Man and Little Boy (1989) — the title a reference to the nicknames assigned to the distinctively shaped bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to bring an end to World War II — stars Paul Newman as General Leslie Groves, the U.S. Army official charged with beating the Germans in the development of nuclear weaponry. Groves assembles a team of young scientists led by Dr. Robert Oppenheimer (Dwight Schultz), questions over whose political associations are muted by his doubtless ambition to conquer the project. No doubt there is mighty grist for drama in this sprawling tale of momentous discovery in the midst of grave international conflict, but Joffé only uncovers such briefly. From the very get-go Fat Man and Little Boy is marred by a horrific miscalculation of tone, unfortunately comic in its overproduced recreation of the 1940s. The early scenes of Groves' reluctant reassignment to The Manhattan Project are too broadly played, with Newman barking his lines as if warming up for his forthcoming role the Coen Bros.' Hudsucker Proxy (Ennio Morricone's mostly anonymous score is at its very worst here, veering into screwball bombasticity). Eventually, the film settles into a less abrasive style, but fails for the first hour to create any palpable tension amongst the mostly faceless geniuses tasked with fashioning from scratch the world's deadliest weapon in 19 months. The primary failing of these early scenes lies in screenwriter Bruce Robinson's lazy decision to obscure the very science at the heart of his narrative, severely distancing the audience from the key struggle of the first half of his movie. As anyone who has ever watched a Jeff Goldblum movie (like The Race for the Double Helix or the 1986 remake of The Fly) knows, the science doesn't even have to make sense to the viewer as long as intelligent actors are given room to create a palpable thrill of discovery, but Robinson gives us a single scene of this kind, and every successive breakthrough (and tragic mishap) goes by virtually unexplained, muting their impact and leaving them empathetically meaningless. Fat Man and Little Boy finally catches some heat as Oppenheimer's team nears completion of its mission and some members began to question the morality of their work — and even petition the President to request that their two years of toil never come to fruition — nearly derailing Grove's career and, more importantly, his vision of unprecedented U.S. strength as a powerful deterrent force. This strong half-hour, however, is eventually undermined by a final stretch of uninspired, melodramatic speechifying, including Oppenheimer's wife's (Bonnie Bedelia) plea for "peace, love and understanding," and an overheated rant by the typically unstomachable John C. McGinley about the looming specter of proliferation and Armageddon. These unnecessary polemics shift the film from middling docudrama to shallow propaganda. The climactic sequence of Oppenheimer feeling the awesome power of his efforts during a test detonation is rendered impotent by bizarre over-stylization (does a mushroom cloud need stylistic augmentation for effect?). This final piece in Joffé's anti-war trilogy soils the legacy of its more powerful predecessors, and punctures his promise with an underwhelming whimper. For the most part, the performances in Fat Man and Little Boy are as flat as Robinson's simple characterizations. Schultz, previously known as the loony Murdoch on TV's "The A Team," feels mostly out of his depth in the very different, controlled character of Oppenheimer. The best performance is given by John Cusak, whose fresh-faced scientist Michael Merriman is a fictitious composite of a few real-life scientists, most notably Joseph Slotin, whose true story offers the film's most gruesome glimpse at the consequences of radioactive weaponry and also its most glaringly opportunist departure from history, as Slotin's accidental exposure to deadly radiation didn't occur until nearly a year after the events covered in Joffé's movie. Also with Laura Dern, and brief appearances by Fred Thompson and Natasha Richardson. Fat Man and Little Boy is released by Paramount in a no-frills, occasionally grainy anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with both Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround audio tracks. There are no extra features, not even a trailer. Keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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