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Next stop, implosion!

Fat Man and Little Boy
aka Shadow Makers

(SPOILERS) The Manhattan Project is currently Hollywood currency once more, on account of a highly-prized – by bidding studios – Chris Nolan project that hopes it will be a goldmine simply based on the director’s past credits. Not, perhaps, an outrageous assumption, but studios would have been wise to look to Dunkirk’s performance and then halve it when agreeing to the budget. On the face of it, Oppenheimer’s a prestige Oscar-grab by Nolan, one that sees him once again scouting the terrain of perception and reality as he reinforces the dominant paradigm. If he isn’t careful, though, his picture will meet with a similar response to the last major foray to Los Alamos: crickets. Which is where Roland Joffé comes in with Fat Man and Little Boy.

I was curious to learn that, prior to Joffé taking charge, it was a Hugh Hudson/ David Puttnam project, eventually to be produced by Paramount (with Tony Garnett, of Kes, as producer, and John Calley as executive producer). Like Hudson, there was an early illusion that Joffé was a towering, prestige director in the David Lean tradition, because he’d made a toweringly prestigious film (for Chariots of Fire swap in The Killing Fields). Alas, diminishing returns instantly announced themselves (for Greystoke swap in The Mission); the point of no return for Hudson would be Revolution. For Joffé it would be Fat Man and Little Boy.

Linking, just about, the production’s two incarnations is Bruce Robinson, he of all-time-classic Withnail & I and several more not-such-classics, some incredibly mutilated screenplays and one that turned out pretty well: Joffé’s The Killing Fields. He was nominated for Best Screenplay Oscar for that one, but no such fortune awaited Fat Man and Little Boy. Indeed, his established rep was “one of the few life rafts I had…” in the wake of Fat Man and Little Boy floundering. The final screenplay credit went to Joffé and Robinson, from a story by Robinson. In the event, he credits the experience as one of the two worst things that have happened in his career (the other being Jennifer 8); his two and a half years’ research in furnishing a screenplay of which he was proud was for naught.

As recounted to Alistair Owen in Smoking in Bed: Conversations with Bruce Robinson, the latter’s last contact with Joffé was at preview for Revolution: “Did you know we’re making The Bomb?” (the working title for Fat Man and Little Boy). That was it: “I’m sure Roland is a better director than I could ever be, because he’s into stuff that I don’t know about, but I’m a better writer than he could ever be, so why couldn’t we collaborate?” Robinson considered the mess that was made of the script “like one of the passengers suddenly flying a 747”.

Joffé was allowed to have his head because he was the “blue-eyed boy” (while The Mission may have flopped, it did win the Palme d’Or and also received a clutch of Oscar nominations). Robinson: “I’m incensed, even now, fifteen years later, about what happened to that film”. It sounds very much as if Joffé was hoisted by his own would-be-auteur petard, hubristically deciding he couldn’t repeat The Killing Fields arrangement as it might be seen that he was dependent on Robinson, or in some kind of creative partnership.

There were two key components to making Robinson’s screenplay a story: one being that the project was built on a lie (not, sadly on the nuke itself being a lie, although I shall come to that), and the other being the fate of Robert Oppenheimer’s mistress Jean Tatlock. The former point is somewhat obscured in its passage through Joffé’s messy paws; while it’s evident on screen that Colonel Groves (Paul Newman), in charge of the Manhattan Project, knew the Germans “don’t have the bomb – not even close”, its development is well underway by this point in the movie (Robinson notes the Manhattan Project got going in March 1943, yet “By January 1943 they knew the Germans weren’t building an atomic bomb”).

In the case of Tatlock (Natasha Richardson, who features in about one scene with Dwight Schultz’s Oppenheimer), the plotline all but disappeared. Robinson recalled how Joffé only contacted him when it came to verifying the Jean Tatlock research – since one can legally libel the dead in the US – at which point Robinson denied him the research.

Robinson professed to having only seen about half an hour of the picture – Owen, curiously, had good things to say regarding it – so it’s unclear quite how much it was changed from his conception. He cites the references to mental patients being injected with plutonium as a Joffé obsession that had little to do with the story being told (an element Pauline Kael doubted, since it compounded what she saw as anti-American sentiment, a touchy subject for her, but it appears she was wrong).

When I first saw Fat Man and Little Boy – or Shadow Makers, as it was called in the UK – I’m unsure if I was conscious of Robinson’s involvement. The main point of interest, besides the development-of-the-nuke itself, was Howling Mad Murdoch in a leading role. Having always regarded him as the singular reason for watching The A-Team, I vaguely rooted for the film. As it was, while I found it passingly of interest, Schultz failed to stand out, and the main area of engagement proved to be subplot where John Cusack’s character is exposed to a fatal dose of radiation (a sequence that elicited some controversy).

The movie, budgeted at $30m, spent a solitary week in the US Top Ten (at 10); Robinson claimed “It was the most expensive flop that Paramount had ever made; I have that on good authority”. It was further speculated that the picture was allowed to die quietly, with a mood of Japanese investment percolating in Hollywood (which saw Sony purchasing Columbia).

What struck me this time – I’d probably forgotten the details, for this very reason – is how utterly limp the main dramatic focus is. There’s never a sense that Joffé is really interested in his protagonists Groves and Oppenheimer. There’s little in the way of tension between them, nothing to suggest the “Mephistophelean” deal the latter struck (Joffé was fond of describing it that way). Oppenheimer’s referenced as being immensely charismatic (per Robinson, this was the reason Groves wanted him: he was a “great scientist but not an innovative scientist”). I can see why Joffé might think the guy who played Murdoch would deliver that, but Schultz is curiously anonymous in the role. Either through his choices or a screenplay that simply doesn’t give him enough, he leaves no impression.

Others are left to describe the man, to fill in the blanks of what we don’t see, always a bad sign. Groves tells him “I don’t understand you. You think you’re some kind of bohemian or something”, while Cusack’s Michael Merriman keeps a superfluous journal, noting how Oppenheimer is their “inspiration”, but fears he’s “beginning to crack”. None of this translates into the character we see, nor the concern that “You know, if Oppy doesn’t let up, he’s going to implode”. Even when Schultz dons a Native American headdress and leads Groves in dance, there’s no sense of a charismatic fellow shining through.

Newman’s okay, I guess. He doesn’t convey the man Robinson describes as “highly intelligent, incredibly capable and very devious”. Both Newman and Schultz have been commonly called out as miscast. There’s a scene in the movie where Fred Thompson, playing Major General Barry, bursts into Groves’ office with an illustrative tyre (shortages caused by the Project) and you’re struck by the fire suddenly lit under the proceedings. Perhaps Thompson, later a Republican senator, should have played Groves.

Robinson felt that if Newman, a star, was one side of the equation, another star was needed on the other. More fundamentally, though “Based on that Freudian principle ‘Nothing happens by accident’, it’s very bizarre, and subliminally the core of the screenplay, that those bombs were called ‘Fat Man’ and ‘Little Boy’ and this enormous army guy Groves and his obedient scientist Oppenheimer who he manipulated to get them”. Not quite Jake and the Fat Man, but something was clearly lost in translation.

There are bright spots. John C McGinley’s typically wired and offers an amusing Groves impression. Bonnie Bedelia is given a soaked (cuckolded) part of Kitty Oppenheimer – Kael notes she was a scientist in her own right – and creates some tension in her interactions with Groves (“Nothing I say could approach the vulgarity of what you’re building in your backyard”). Gerald Hiken, as physicist Leo Szilard, memorably instructs Groves from a bathtub.

But then, future Best Picture Oscar nominee Todd Field is an anonymous physicist. Laura Dern is dumped on with an awful nurse-girlfriend role. Joffé is only visibly engaged sporadically. Ennio Morricone contributes the score, as with The Mission, but this time it’s utterly forgettable (so not unlike the movie itself). Joffé has Vilmos Zsigmond on board, but the cinematographer’s work only truly wows only once, when we see the Trinity test going off as a reflection on Oppenheimer’s goggles, the shockwave making a cartoon of his face. I guess too, when you have the future director of torture-porn Captivity detailing Cusack’s disgusting death, there’s an attention to the grisly horror of it all.

That sequence, which featured in Robinson’s original screenplay, is chronologically devious, since no one – publicly – died on the Project prior to the end of the war. Merriman was the screenwriter’s invention, justified he felt, because they weren’t showing the bombs’ effects and needed to include a stark reminder somewhere; all he did was shift the time period. It isn’t a choice that helps the movie’s case much, since it suggests there might not have been enough juice in the tank to begin with. You’d expect, at very least, the story to be driven, be it by a ticking clock – subtitles record the days until the deadline for completion, but there’s no tension there – or the conflict between Groves and Oppenheimer, or the internal struggle of the man himself, but there’s none of this. The inclusion of the scientists’ petition to Washington (to halt the project) barely registers in terms of quickening the pulse.

The Film Yearbook Volume 9’s Trevor Willsmer, in a “Disappointment of the Year” takedown, noted the movie was the recipient of heavy pre-release cutting (the original ending is also missing) and how the truth vs reality debate re Cusack had reduced its stature further, a “contrivance that took the brunt of American critics’ wrath”. While he referred to a “surprisingly impressive Schultz”, he called the movie “an infuriating mixture of the sublime and the amateur, with no single vision strong enough to keep the film on an even keel”. Kael considered it “rather indistinct”, suggesting Joffé had “taken an inherently dramatic subject and got lost in it; the script is a shambles”. As noted, one of her bugbears resurfaced (see her view of John Schlesinger’s approach to Midnight Cowboy), with her charge that “These English moviemakers may have a target (disarmament?), but their aim is all over the place”. Kael, floundering in Hegelian dialectics.

Robinson’s aim was true, but only within the parameters he set himself. He identified a tissue of lies at the heart of the Project, but to go further would have been akin to denying, say, the Space Race as real. Both, of course, configured similar budgetary black holes: “the race for an atomic bomb... was bullshit. It was a piece of opportunism that has always been sold as an historical fact... the ‘race’ for The Bomb between the three nations was a lie (England, America, Germany), and it seemed to me a fascinating paradox that the most secret and most expensive project in the history of mankind – bigger than the pyramids – was premised on a lie”.

Robinson cites prolonged and strenuous Freedom of Information requests, during which Leon Britten advised him to drop the whole thing and his phone was tapped; he was left alone to do his research by Paramount, because they saw he was onto something, and “we did ultimately get the information”. But the level of the information? “I know I was right about a lot of things that weren’t in Fat Man, because I set out to prove them and could do that with documents”. One has to take on faith, therefore, that the documents one perused, right down to Groves’ diaries, were accurate and truthful.

In Robinson’s take “Groves and his ilk thought ‘Let’s herd all these guys in and tell them we’ve got to build a bomb because we’re in a desperate race with Hitler”. These guys being “almost without exception Jews on the run from the Nazis”. He observes “Hitler called nuclear energy ‘Jewish physics’” and believes Groves cynically spurred the Project’s scientists to a result with that stick. He further suggested Groves had no doubt about Oppenheimer’s sympathies (re being a possible Commie), because he had already been tested and found true via MI6 man George Elenton, posing as a Shell union rep and asking for nuke secrets for the Russians. Colonel John Lansdale, concerned over Oppenheimer and Tatlock, wasn’t privy to this; as Robinson interprets it, Lansdale took the latter’s case to Hoover (since, as a civilian, she’d be under the purview of the FBI), who obligingly had her killed.

Which may well be true, but if so, it’s a lesser truth. You can see Robinson almost straying on something bigger as he sifts the acres of history he’s researched. How all information on Germany developing a nuke pre-1943 is classified (because they weren’t, and were only piqued by the knowledge the US was). How “various companies made billions out of this thing” (so just like the Space Race). How the Bomb was necessary to stop the Soviets’ likelihood of marching into Japan (not to persuade the Japanese of anything). How, prior to the project, “Theoretically plutonium existed but nobody had ever seen it” (so like viruses, or globe Earth) And how “The atomic bomb killed 120,000 people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but just before that the Allies had killed over 80,000 in fire raids on Tokyo”.

Because the bigger lie here – or what if – is the existence of nukes themselves. There’s good reason to believe all that nuclear test footage – in common, again, with all those views from space – is fabrication, the products of lava lamps and slo-mo exploding model villages. It has been theorised Hiroshima and Nagasaki “were simply destroyed by US standard napalm carpet fire bombing raids early… followed by magnesium firework bomb producing a big flash over each town. US propaganda created the rest”. One need only compare the casualties cited by Robinson for feasibility in that regard. In such a scenario, “Oppenheimer, the chief of the project, never managed to explode anything ... except a magnesium flash bomb”.

Further to this, there’s the suggestion, alluded to in terms of the logic of the project, that “If nuclear power is fake, so is plutonium”. Very conveniently, a German U-boat was captured in May 1945 chock full of uranium hexafluoride, “And suddenly, the Manhattan project had refilled it's almost empty uranium reserves, and found a method to trigger the plutonium bomb”. Obviously, as with any conspirasphere theory, there are differing takes on the evidence we’re shown, one being the clouds are per PrimalRed, “from stacks of TnT blowing up”, including dismissal of the technical requirements of making a bomb work (“You can’t just slap two pieces of uranium together and get an exponential fissile reaction. At most the metal will get hot. You also can’t ‘implode’ plutonium”). PrimalRed explained it thus:

And of course- the impossibility of the bombs even working. During the Manhattan Project, 2/3 of the top nuclear physicists and mathematicians in the world agreed it was impossible for an uncontrolled exponential fissile reaction to even take place. Neutrons from fission travel waaaay too fast to split an atom – they need a moderator to slow them down. Think of high-speed rifles piercing right through a target vs a slow heavy impact from a sawed off shotgun that sends the target flying 20 feet. It’s the same kinetic principle of ballistics at work. At the time of WW2 they required an entire warehouse of graphite just to create sustained fissile reaction, let alone an uncontrolled exponential one. What were the neutron moderator mechanisms in Fat Man and Little Boy? None. Sprinkling some beryllium powder does not a neutron moderator make.

And when you note “On top of that, they couldn’t even get the triggering device to work on the night before Trinity” and compare and contrast to the space missions miraculously getting rocket propulsion right after persistent hopelessness, twenty-odd years later, one would might reasonably assume a modus operandi of “Well, they swallowed the last one, why not this?”

None of which is to suggest it’s necessarily impossible to split the atom, any more than to suggest it’s impossible to leave Earth (this would come down to whether it’s more purposeful to impart a total lie or a partial one). Only that what we’re told in both cases is a tissue of lies, fabrications and ploys to overlay a false view of the world and indeed universe.

For further consideration of the reasons for the lie, it’s worth checking out the conclusion to Michael Palmer’s Hiroshima Revisited, which goes with the idea of a – failed – attempt to inculcate the need for a one-world-government through the threat of annihilation, a means of persuading the gullible public. Although, his perspective that the Soviets effectively nixed this rather runs counter to the logical conclusion one might reach (for it to be the case, one must assume all sides don’t ultimately have the same masters). I certainly agree fear was the prevailing motive. I’m not entirely sure the timeline was as immediate as Palmer envisages, though; if the Soviets thought world government was the aim of imperialists, that’s because it suited the dialectical narrative at the time.

Perhaps most curious in relation to the Project is the suggestion of occult overlays in the language used, since these global acts of “magick” are by their very definition casting a spell on the populace (we’ve seen this with the coof, and we see it with the measurements, distances and numbers pertaining to space). So we have Trinity (Trinity College Oxford), and thus references to Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva (“a fear-based reincarnation of… creator, preserver and destroyer”). The ritual is completed when we add in Oppenheimer quoting the Bhagavad Gita: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”. It scarcely matters that the quote mistranslates “time” as “death”. Or rather, it’s essential that it does, in order to induce the necessary, tantalising dread (stir and leave to linger for the next three-and-a-half decades, to be kick-started at judicious intervals).

Robinson called Fat Man and Little Boythe biggest hole in my life creatively”, and it sounds like it was small comfort that the picture was commonly hailed as a turkey. No one, not even Newman – who delivered a double header of underfed historical characters that year, the other being Governor Earl Long in Blaze; both were his first post-Oscar roles – escaped unscathed. Schultz, other than Star Trek: Voyager, had retreated almost exclusively to voice-artist work from the late ’90s onwards; perhaps that was down to his conservative cred in Hollywood, or possibly simply personal preference. Joffé went from one disaster – City of Joy – to another – The Scarlet Letter. Robinson made a movie (Jennifer 8) but nothing further for nearly two decades, while his two produced screenplays (Return to Paradise, In Dreams) were pervasively mangled. So look out Nolan. Time may not help you, should Oppenheimer become the destroyer of biographical films. Unless, of course, you’re out there filming an accurate version of events...

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