Filed under: Reviews.
Watched the 1989 movie FAT MAN AND LITTLE BOY on DVD this evening. Rarely is a film so poorly cast; ironically, the first opening credit after the star names is that of the casting director, Nancy Foy.
Paul Newman can be a fabulous actor — by coincidence, the night before, I was watching brilliant clips of him in THE VERDICT as part of a PBS documentary about Sidney Lumet — but he was terrible as Manhattan Project head General Leslie R. Groves, giving a flat one-note performance.
And, holy crap, Dwight Schultz is awful as J. Robert Oppenheimer. Neither actor is aided by a crappy script (by Bruce Robinson and Roland Joffé) and stiff direction (by Joffé), but Schultz is simply out of his depth; it’s no surprise that this film ended his career as a movie leading man.
And the cinematography! Vilmos Zsigmond has lensed some visually great films (including CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND), but his work here was pedestrian at best, and the fill lighting in the outdoor scenes (actually Mexico, sanding in for Los Alamos) is so bright as to make everything outdoors look like a TV sitcom. Much of the film is also hampered by crappy ADR.
Groves and Oppenheimer are very difficult characters to play; for me, the gold standard is Brian Dennehy as the former and David Strathairn as the latter from the TV movie DAY ONE, which came out the same year as FAT MAN AND LITTLE BOY. Newman isn’t the worst Groves I’ve seen — that would be Manning Redwood from the BBC OPPENHEIMER miniseries, but Schultz IS the worst Oppenheimer.
The film adds a subplot that sadly doesn’t fit. In real life, AFTER the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Canadian physicist Louis Slotin was killed when criticality was accidentally triggered during a demonstration he was making at Los Alamos.
His quite horrible decline and death would have been a sobering thing for Groves, Oppenheimer, and others at Los Alamos to witness while the decision about whether to actually drop the bombs on civilian targets in Japan vs. conducting a demonstration with Japanese observers was still being debated.
To move this tragedy up to BEFORE the bombs were dropped required contriving that Groves COVERED UP the accident and HID IT from Oppenheimer — which simply isn’t true.
Anyway, it’s not an awful film. Roger Ebert gave it 1.5 stars; I think it’s more of a 2-star effort. But it does underscore just how difficult it is to capture the drama of the Manhattan Project on film or TV.