This review is a dramatic recreation of Judge Neal Masri's actual review.
It was the defining moment of the 20th century—the scientific, technological, military, and political gamble of the first atomic attack.
"The atomic bomb made the prospect of future war unendurable. It has led us up those last few steps to the mountain pass; and beyond there is a different country."—J. Robert Oppenheimer
Facts of the Case
This film recounts the weeks leading up to the first ever use of an atomic bomb in combat, and the immediate after effects of that event. Using archive footage, special effects, and dramatic reconstructions, the film takes us inside an atomic bomb and on the ground when it is detonated. Interviews with eyewitnesses punctuate the images and make real the power and horror of the atomic bomb.
"I am become death, the destroyer of worlds."—The Bhagavad-Gita, quoted by Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer upon the detonation of the first atomic bomb.
The most engrossing documentaries take a particularly compelling true story and apply to that story the same rules that apply to fiction films. There are compelling characters, dramatic conflict, and a story arc. BBC History of World War II: Hiroshima takes that fictional sensibility a step further with extensive use of dramatic recreations and CGI. Hence, I am loathe to call this a straight documentary. The best description I can give is the compromise term "docu-drama."
Not that there aren't plenty of compelling real-life facts here. As an example, there are numerous interviews with survivors of Hiroshima. Their firsthand accounts are haunting and horrific. Seeing the real human toll of the bomb was quite sobering. Also, a fair amount of archival footage is used. Be warned, there are some fairly graphic images of burns presented here.
John Hurt (V for Vendetta) narrates the film in an authoritative yet sensitive voice. Not much time is spent on the scientific development of the bomb. This film's main concern is the chain of events that led to the decision to drop the bomb and it's immediate after effects. There are several interesting dramatic recreations here along with interviews with the Enola Gay pilot and one of Harry Truman's advisors.
When the moment of truth finally arrives, we follow the bomb from the Enola Gay down through the atmosphere. Whether intentional or not the similarity to the Slim Pickens bomb ride in Dr. Strangelove is unmistakable. This bit of irony aside, the sequence leads to the most riveting portion of the show—a second by second account of the bomb's effect upon Hiroshima and its inhabitants.
Extensive use of CGI demonstrates the effect of the initial blast, the shock wave, and the blinding light of a nuclear explosion. We see buildings collapse and human bodies vaporized. These visual images coupled with the first hand accounts of the attack are arresting in their horrific detail. I was frankly amazed at how many survivors there were who were as close to the blast as a few hundred meters.
Particularly interesting is the fact that there were so many unknowns as to the effect of radiation on the survivors. Japanese doctors who treated victims of radiation poisoning were unsure what was happening as people succumbed to a mysterious illness in the days after the attack. Of course, casualties continued long after, suffering from cancer, birth defects, and other radiation-related maladies.
The film ends with numerous shots of modern day Hiroshima. The city, rebuilt so that almost no signs of the attack remain, is a thriving modern-day metropolis. The final image of the film shows thousands of candles floating down the Ota River, which runs through the heart of the city. They represent the souls of those lost in the blast. It's something that this city, and indeed the world, can never forget.
There is a fair amount of archival footage presented here, so allowances have to be made for source material. Other than that video is well presented and sharp. The Dolby Surround 2.0 audio track is music- and dialogue-focused, as it should be for a documentary.
A few extras are provided. Most interesting is vintage newsreel footage of interviews with the crew of the Enola Gay. The interviews seem to have been done fairly soon after the dropping of the bomb. Most interesting is the celebratory tone and the upbeat talk of this "revolutionary" new weapon. Another vintage newsreel entitled "A Tale of Two Cities" is provided. It's part news, part propaganda. It extols the fearsome power of the atomic bomb while extolling its effectiveness in decimating Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Finally, we have an interview with producer Paul Wilmhurst. This four-minute segment briefly covers how he approached the making of the film and how he wanted to present the story of Hiroshima as people have never before seen it.
It is revealed midway through this documentary that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were intentionally left out of bombing campaigns prior to the now famous mission of the Enola Gay. The reason for this decision was to have a tabula rasa upon which to drop the bomb. This would give the US military and scientists a clear idea of the effects of the atomic bomb in a combat situation. What does this decision say about the necessity of using atomic weapons on the Japanese people? While I have a feeling how the filmmakers would answer that question, the answer is not forced down the viewer's throat.
Only a minute or two is spent discussing the morality of the use of the atomic bomb. I think this is a good thing. While there is acknowledgement of the horror of the bomb and its after effects, the filmmakers wisely choose to let the facts speak for themselves. Certainly, there were bombing campaigns as vicious as Hiroshima over the course of World War II (the firebombing of Dresden comes to mind). However, Hiroshima upped the ante of modern warfare to a startling new level. For good or ill, the notion of what defined "civilized" warfare changed forever on August 6, 1945. This film wisely leaves the value judgment of that change up to the viewer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Much of the running time of BBC History of World War II: Hiroshima is devoted to dramatic recreations. So much so that, at several points, I wished they had simply gone with a dramatized film version of these events.
BBC documentaries are consistently engrossing and well made and this one is no exception. Vivid recreations coupled with first hand accounts of the bombing make for a riveting and thought-provoking story of one of the most significant events of the twentieth century.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
• Interview with Producer Paul Wilmhurst
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