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‘Fat Man and Little Boy’

By Desson Howe
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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An atomic bomb called "Fat Man and Little Boy" has dropped on your local theaters and among those caught in the mushroom cloud are Paul Newman, John Cusack, Bonnie Bedelia -- and possibly the worst "J. Robert Oppenheimer" ever to chainsmoke his way through a docudrama.

The actor is Dwight Schultz, and for quarantine purposes he'll be staying in this paragraph for the rest of his life.

"Fat Man," a dramatization of America's 19-month race to build the bomb, a k a the Manhattan Project, is not resoundingly disastrous. That would imply a certain energy. Its effect is more innocuous than lethal, a cloud of un-drama wafted along by director Roland Joffe, smog-maker -- sorry, cinematographer -- Vilmos Zsigmond and scriptwriter Bruce Robinson, who seems better suited for malicious satire ("Withnail and I," "How to Get Ahead in Advertising") than Important Subjects (Joffe's "The Killing Fields").

As gruff project-gooser Gen. Leslie Groves, Newman is the only one in the ensemble who displays vital signs, and fitfully at that. He's missing in action during a major chunk of the movie, an extended Los Alamos think-tank session filled with Get-to-Know-the-Scientists ho-hum; "scientists" such as Schultz (oh no, he escaped!), whose only science appears to be imploding impersonations of Pierce Brosnan, and Little Boy-Wonder Cusack who, understandably, is thrilled when fellow "geniuses" come up with ideas.

As Hiroshima-Nagasaki deadlines get closer, and Newman's fighting to save the project (it involves resisting moral protests from liberal scientists and trying to make Hollywood actor-scientists conceive of anything), he's also fighting -- with consolable success -- for his role.

"Fat Man" seems unsure of which human story to concentrate on. So it goes for the grand slam, variously following Newman, as the helmsman of the project; the creative tension between Newman and Schultz's "Oppie"; Schultz's strained marriage with Bedelia and security-forced breakup with Commie-ex Natasha Richardson (who could use a breakup with her bad luck after this and the ill-fated "Patty Hearst"); the growing love between Cusack and project nurse Laura Dern; and Cusack's friendship with project doctor John C. McGinley, a man who seems more like Bruce Dern with every picture.

The disappointing human formulae put you in the ugly, amoral position of eagerly anticipating those deadly flights over Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- which never come, by the way -- and that's not a pretty feeling.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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