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‘Fat Man and Little Boy’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 20, 1989


Roland Joffe
Paul Newman;
Dwight Schultz;
Bonnie Bedelia;
John Cusack;
Laura Dern;
Natasha Richardson
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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There is a cruel inevitability to history. For most of us, it is a solid; it exists in its final, unalterable state. But the genius of "Fat Man and Little Boy," Roland Joffe's movie about the events leading up to the explosion of the first atomic bomb, is that it suggests an earlier, more fluid condition. It assumes that history is the most fragile of realities -- the direct result of real actions made by real people under very specific circumstances -- and that if any of these circumstances had been different, then history would have been different.

This is far from revolutionary thinking, but it is an unusual human perspective, and it's what makes "Fat Man and Little Boy" such a singular, powerful experience. The film reunites Joffe with Bruce Robinson, his screenwriter from "The Killing Fields," and together they resist the temptation to sensationalize their material. And they have no desire to turn the film -- which gets its title from the code names for the first two nuclear bombs -- into an anti-nuke platform. Instead they've chosen to present their story with an almost documentary matter-of-factness, letting the events speak for themselves.

There is a reason for this, namely that character is their subject, not politics. Joffe and Robinson bring history down to its roots in personality. In their view, though grand schemes and ideologies may play a role, egos usually determine the outcome. What they also allow for is the possibility that people may do evil without being evil, and that a person's motives and intentions are nearly irrelevant when a final moral accounting is done.

As a result, the point that the film ultimately comes to is deeply, gloriously ambiguous, even paradoxical. It is, simply, that though what these men created was perhaps apocalyptically monstrous, they behaved heroically. At the center of the drama are two men, J. Robert Oppenheimer (Dwight Schultz) and Gen. Leslie Groves (Paul Newman). One is a brilliant scientific theorist, the other a practical-minded military man. Both men are strong-willed, and, at the start of the project, when Groves is recruiting the genius from Berkeley to head his team, each believes he will be able to impose his will upon the other.

Robinson (who wrote and directed "Withnail and I" and "How to Get Ahead in Advertising") is film's reigning master of rampaging egotism, and he gives an element of vainglorious puffery to both characters. These two are like halves of some greater whole; they're near-perfect collaborators, and what the movie shows us is that both were essential for this project to come to fruition.

The film begins with the general receiving his orders, and when Groves first hears that instead of commanding troops at the front, he'll stay stateside, baby-sitting a bunch of egomaniacal eggheads, he throws a fit. As far as he's concerned, it's a bum gig. Being the ultimate team player, though, he quickly reconciles himself to it. And more. The project, at first, is a race with the Germans, who reportedly are working on a bomb of their own. Emphasizing the need for secrecy and speed, Groves sets up his team in the New Mexico desert with Oppenheimer in charge. This early section, when the scientists are newly arrived and still flailing in the theoretical dark, is the film's sprightliest. Inspiration, when it comes, isn't always divine, but there's a giddy excitement to watching these intellectually overendowed Katzenjammers rub their IQs together; you're caught up in the thrill of making history.

Realizing that his prize crackpots won't respond to the straight Army line, Groves loosens the reins, and at first he seems overmatched, out of his military depths. Despite this, the general manages to maintain the upper hand, but not always by the most scrupulous means.

As Newman plays him, this military man possesses his own brand of clear-eyed genius. For Groves, the master manipulator, every conversation is a gambit, a play for advantage. With another actor, the character could easily have become a military cartoon, or have been reduced to a man who was just following orders. But Newman gives dimension and strength of purpose to his drive to complete his mission; he doesn't undercut him.

Still, there is a sense of frailty and old age mixed in with Groves's slit-eyed determination. In the process of vividly creating an individual, Newman illustrates an archetype, a whole philosophical set. This is majestic, feet-of-clay acting, and all the more brilliant for being cut perfectly to human scale.

In smaller roles, John Cusack, Laura Dern, Natasha Richardson and Bonnie Bedelia all make strong, moving contributions. However, their work, combined with Newman's, only serves as greater reason to lament Joffe's choice of Dwight Schultz to play Oppenheimer. A stage actor making his film debut, Schultz is stiff and actorly; like an irredeemably tone-deaf singer, he hits only false notes.

The sorrow of this is that if the role had been filled by an actor in Newman's weight class, the picture might have been truly great. There are other flaws, but this is the essential one. If the film is to work, Oppenheimer has to hold the stage with Groves, but with Schultz in the role, he doesn't come close.

Groves wins this battle of wills precisely because of what he is, a pragmatist used to dealing in harsh worldly realities. He's comfortable with his place in the moral layout, and unlike Oppenheimer, who along with his colleagues begins to feel that blindly exercising their talents was a mistake, he's prepared to do whatever is necessary to get what he wants.

To a great extent, Groves assumed a greater authority than was rightfully his. But if he is a monster, he's an astoundingly sympathetic one, mostly because he is so vividly human. That men, not governments, shape history is, from the filmmakers' perspective, an offering of hope for the future. What "Fat Man and Little Boy" tells us is potent and essential. It tells us if history is dominated by individual action, then individual action has meaning -- in history everything is for keeps.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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