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Lest we forget: Mark 75 years of the atomic bomb with the Ars watch list

Enlarge / Ars marks the 75th anniversary of the nuclear bomb with a look at how the complicated legacy of this world-altering event has been reflected in film and television.Film collage by Aurich Lawson

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the first atomic bomb. Just before sunrise on July 16, 1945, in a secluded spot in a central New Mexican desert, a prototype bomb nicknamed "Gadget" was hoisted to the top of a 100-foot tower and detonated. The blast vaporized the steel tower and produced a mushroom cloud rising to more than 38,000 feet. The heat from the explosion melted the sandy soil around the tower into a mildly radioactive glassy crust now known as "trinitite." And the shock wave broke windows as far as 120 miles away.

After the Trinity test, Richard Feynman recalled finding his colleague, Robert Wilson, sitting despondently amid the celebration. "It's a terrible thing that we made," Feynman remembered him saying. Hans Bethe famously observed, "The physicists have known sin. And this is a knowledge which they cannot lose." It's often said that physicists became so intent on the intellectual challenge of building an atomic bomb that they lost sight of the profound implications of what they were creating.

Those implications became all too clear on August 6, 1945, when a gun-triggered fission bomb dubbed "Little Boy" fell on Hiroshima, killing an estimated 70,000 to 130,000 people. Three days later, the implosion-triggered "Fat Man" was dropped on Nagasaki, adding another 45,000 human casualties. The United States won the war but at a horrific cost. The world has been haunted by the prospect of a devastating nuclear apocalypse ever since—and so has TV and the movies. So to mark this somber occasion, we've compiled a watch list of films and shows that we feel best reflect the complicated legacy of the atomic bomb.

(Some spoilers below.)

Brian Donlevy, Henry O'Neill, Joseph Calleia, and Hume Cronyn prepare to test the first atomic bomb in <em>The Beginning or the End</em>
Enlarge / Brian Donlevy, Henry O'Neill, Joseph Calleia, and Hume Cronyn prepare to test the first atomic bomb in The Beginning or the EndMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images

The Beginning or the End (1947)

This docudrama might not be the best cinematic treatment of the development of the atomic bomb, but it has the distinction of being the first, released just two years after the deployment of "Fat Man" and "Little Boy" against Japan. Actress Donna Reed had the idea for the film after conferring with her high school science teacher, who worked as a chemist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Major General Leslie R. Groves Jr. (played by Brian Donlevy in the film) served as a military consultant, and President Harry Truman himself provided the title after a meeting with Reed and producer Samuel Marx. "Tell the people of this nation that for them it is the beginning or the end," Truman purportedly said.

The filmmakers did their best to retain historically accurate details, and nine of the actors who played the crew of the Enola Gay were World War II veterans. But a scene showing the bomber maneuvering through bursting anti-aircraft shells was inaccurate, and many of the technical details of the atomic bomb were still classified at the time, so those details were highly inaccurate. The film's references to leaflets being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to warn citizens 10 days before the attack was also fictional. Also, some of the central scientists, including Niels Bohr, refused to grant permission to be depicted in the film (a legal requirement at the time), forcing rewrites.

Hollywood censors insisted on a few cuts, and there was also political meddling. Eleanor Roosevelt objected to the casting of Lionel Barrymore because he had spoken negatively about her husband a few years before. (The actor was replaced by Godfrey Tearle). And an entirely fictional scene showing Truman agonizing over the decision to drop the bomb was added. With all that external meddling, it's no wonder that the final film proved disappointing and smacked of state-sponsored propaganda. None other than the real Robert Oppenheimer (played by Hume Cronyn in the film) criticized the script and characters, which he deemed "stilted, lifeless, and without purpose or insight." (Tell us how you really feel, Oppie.)

<em>Godzilla</em> director Ishirō Honda wanted his monster to "possess the terrifying characteristics of an atomic bomb."
Enlarge / Godzilla director Ishirō Honda wanted his monster to "possess the terrifying characteristics of an atomic bomb."Toho Studios

Godzilla (1954)

This is the undisputed king of monster movies. An ancient sea creature is awakened from the ocean depths by underwater tests of a hydrogen bomb, stomping local villages into oblivion and unleashing its deadly atomic breath on those who try to stop it. While the monster is ultimately defeated, Dr. Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura) predicts that another Godzilla could arise if mankind continues to test nuclear weapons. Audiences loved the monster so much that Godzilla was recast as a hero in many later films in the franchise.

The film was intended almost from the start to be a metaphor for the terror unleashed on the world by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—nature's way of taking revenge on man for his destructive creation. "If Godzilla had been a dinosaur or some other animal, he would have been killed by just one cannonball," director Ishirō Honda once said. "But if he were equal to an atomic bomb, we wouldn't know what to do. So, I took the characteristics of an atomic bomb and applied them to Godzilla."

Pro tip: don't confuse the original Godzilla with the 1956 American version, Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, which is the version most of us watched as kids because the original wasn't available in North America until 2004. (That includes Steven Spielberg, who credits the film for inspiring him to make Jurassic Park.) This heavily edited version of the earlier film is shorter and includes awkward new footage of Raymond Burr acting opposite body doubles to make it seem like he had been part of the original. Most of the political themes were also cut from this version. Honda was apparently amused by the changes, given that he had been "trying to imitate American monster movies."

In <em>Hiroshima Mon Amour</em>, the bombing of Hiroshima is a metaphor for the wrenching end of an affair.
Enlarge / In Hiroshima Mon Amour, the bombing of Hiroshima is a metaphor for the wrenching end of an affair.Pathé Films

Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)

This is the debut feature film of French director Alain Resnais and is considered a classic of French New Wave cinema. It was originally supposed to be a short documentary of the atomic bomb, but Resnais couldn't figure out what to do with the material to set it apart from his 1956 Holocaust documentary (Night and Fog). He joked that he needed novelist Marguerite Duras to write the screenplay—and Duras helpfully obliged, snagging an Oscar nomination for her trouble.

The entire film consists of a series of conversations between a French actress identified only as "Her" (Emmanuelle Riva) and a Japanese architect, "Him" (Eiji Okada), at the end of their brief affair. The actress compares their failed relationship to the bombing of Hiroshima, something that resonates with the architect, who had served in the Imperial Japanese Army and lost his family in the Hiroshima bombing. His memories are captured via very brief flashback sequences intercut into the present scenes—one of Resnais' experimental innovations. When it premiered at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival, Hiroshima was sadly excluded from the official selection to avoid offending the US government, given its thematic focus on nuclear bombs.

Slim Pickens rides a nuclear warhead in <em>Dr. Strangelove</em>
Enlarge / Slim Pickens rides a nuclear warhead in Dr. StrangeloveColumbia Pictures

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

No list of films associated with the legacy of the atomic bomb would be complete without Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick's masterful satire of the Cold War era theory of mutually assured destruction (MAD). The legendary Peter Sellers plays three different roles: Group Captain Lionel Mandrake of the British RAF; US President Merkin Muffley; and the wheelchair-bound former Nazi and expert in nuclear bombs, Dr. Strangelove. (The character was an amalgamation of John von Neumann, Wernher von Braun, and strategist Herman Kahn.) It's consistently ranked among the top films of all time and is included in the National Film Registry for preservation.

Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) essentially goes mad—ranting at one point that the Soviets are fluoridating America's water supply to pollute the "precious bodily fluids" of its citizens—and issues orders to drop several atomic bombs on the Soviet Union. The Russian ambassador then reveals that the Soviets have, in turn, created a doomsday machine: many buried nuclear bombs that will detonate automatically in the event of a nuclear attack on the USSR, leading to a radioactive doomsday shroud around the planet that would wipe out all living things.

Naturally, the United States wants a similar machine ("We cannot have a doomsday gap!"). The remaining Pentagon officials eventually manage to call off all but one plane with damaged communication equipment. Who can forget the iconic scene where Maj. T.J. "King" Kong (Slim Pickens) straddles that final bomb as it falls, waving his hat in the air? The doomsday machine kicks in, and the film closes with a series of mushroom clouds rising over the Earth (gleaned from footage of actual nuclear tests).

The animated feature <em>Barefoot Gen</em> offers a child's-eye view of the Hiroshima bombing and the struggle to survive in its aftermath.
Enlarge / The animated feature Barefoot Gen offers a child's-eye view of the Hiroshima bombing and the struggle to survive in its aftermath.Herald Enterprises

Barefoot Gen (1983)/ Barefoot Gen 2 (1986)

Based on Keiji Nakazawa's manga series, these two films build their stories around the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing, told entirely from a child's point of view. Gen is a young boy who survives the bombing, along with his pregnant mother, Kimie; the rest of the family is buried alive under the rubble from the accompanying shock wave. The baby is born, and Gen struggles to find sufficient rice to feed himself and his family, especially after they take in another small boy, Ryuta. He earns some money taking care of a man dying of radiation sickness and, despite the grim daily existence, finds hope when he sees wheat beginning to grow again.

The sequel, Barefoot Gen 2, reunites the cast from the first film. Set three years after the bombing, Gen and his family are still scavenging for food and any scrap metal they can sell on the black market. Gen and Ryuta eventually join forces with a gang of orphaned children. In the end, their mother succumbs to radiation sickness as Gen carries her to the hospital on his back. These two films seem to have been largely been forgotten by American audiences, despite the popularity of Japanese anime, but they are well worth rediscovering.

A young hacker (Matthew Broderick) accidentally accesses a US military supercomputer program to simulate nuclear war scenarios, believing it to be a computer game.
Enlarge / A young hacker (Matthew Broderick) accidentally accesses a US military supercomputer program to simulate nuclear war scenarios, believing it to be a computer game.MGM/UA Entertainment Company

WarGames (1983)

This Oscar-nominated science fiction thriller is a perennial favorite, notable for its depiction of early computer technology and dial-up remote computer access. Matthew Broderick stars as bored high school student David Lightman, who uses his IMSAI 8080 computer to hack into the school's computers to change his grades. But then he accidentally connects with a US military supercomputer called the War Operation Plan Response (WOPR), designed to run simulations to predict possible outcomes of a nuclear war.

David begins playing what he thinks is a game ("Global Thermonuclear War"), targeting American cities since he is "playing" the Soviet Union. This triggers a computer simulation and, since WOPR can't tell the difference between reality and a simulation, it attempts to launch a counterattack. Eventually, David manages to "teach" WOPR about the concept of mutually assured destruction and the program concludes that, for this game, "the only winning move is not to play." WarGames was a critical and box office success, grossing $79.6 million against its $12 million budget, and won an Academy Scientific and Technical Award for the animations seen on the fictional NORAD displays.

More than 100 million people watched <em>The Day After</em> during its initial broadcast in November 1983.
Enlarge / More than 100 million people watched The Day After during its initial broadcast in November 1983.ABC Motion Pictures

The Day After (1983)

Numerous films have been devoted to capturing the grim aftermath and stark human cost of nuclear war, most notably 1959's On the Beach and a BBC drama called Threads. But ABC's Emmy Award-winning miniseries "event," The Day After was arguably the most influential, viewed by more than 100 million people when it originally aired in 1983. The story centers on residents of Kansas City, Missouri, and the nearby college town, Lawrence, Kansas, who become victims of a full-scale nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union. By the time it's over, all the main characters are either dead or dying.

The bombing sequence midway through the film lasts over four minutes, beginning with an electromagnetic pulse that shuts down the power grid and knocks out all the vehicles attempting to flee on the local highway. Then the first mushroom cloud appears, and another, and another, with graphic depictions of people being vaporized as they try to escape the inevitable. Director Nicholas Meyer's (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) original cut included 8.5 minutes of much more graphic shots—eyes melting, flesh carbonizing, people catching fire, limbs torn off, people suffocating from the firestorm, effects of radiation sickness, and violent looting, for instance. But ABC censors insisted they be removed. (Some footage was restored for the VHS/DVD release, but I would dearly love to watch Meyer's full original cut.)

Even with those excisions, the film was still sufficiently disturbing by network standards that ABC issued a viewer advisory before it aired, and had hotlines with counselors standing by. Nightline's Ted Koppel hosted a post-airing debate on nuclear weapons featuring Carl Sagan, Elie Wiesel, and William F. Buckley Jr., among others. Then-President Ronald Reagan noted in his diary that he found the film "very effective and left me greatly depressed," and it likely influenced his decision to enter the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987. As frustrating as Meyer must have found the experience, there is no denying his film had an impact.

Christopher Collet is a high school student who builds an atomic bomb, and John Lithgow plays a nuclear scientist, in <em>The Manhattan Project</em>.
Enlarge / Christopher Collet is a high school student who builds an atomic bomb, and John Lithgow plays a nuclear scientist, in The Manhattan Project.20th Century Fox

The Manhattan Project (1986)

Director Marshall Brickman was primarily known for comedy, having cut his teeth in the industry as a co-writer on several Woody Allen films. He wanted to do something different with The Manhattan Project, a science fiction thriller about a gifted young student who takes on the military-industrial complex by building his own atomic bomb for his high school science fair. The production designers purchased technical gear from Los Alamos for verisimilitude, and Brickman even staged an actual science fair in New York, paying local high school students to participate with their own science projects.

The film was released right around the time of the Chernobyl nuclear accident, which might explain its poor box-office showing: it earned just $3.9 million domestically against an $18 million budget. Reviews were mixed, but critic Roger Ebert called the film "a clever, funny, and very skillful thriller," particularly praising how it developed the relationship between high school student Paul (Christopher Collet) and nuclear scientist John Mathewson (John Lithgow). Brickman would not direct another film until Sister Mary Explains It All, a 2001 Showtime original dark comedy starring Diane Keaton.

Dwight Schultz as J. Robert Oppenheimer, experiencing the successful Trinity Test in <em>Fat Man and Little Boy</em>.
Enlarge / Dwight Schultz as J. Robert Oppenheimer, experiencing the successful Trinity Test in Fat Man and Little Boy.Paramount

Fat Man and Little Boy (1989)

Director Roland Joffe (The Killing Fields) directed this dramatization of the real Manhattan Project and the race to build the world's first atomic bomb, starring Paul Newman as Gen. Leslie Groves. It didn't exactly light up the box office and was criticized for distorting some of the history—a criticism I don't share, because it was never meant to be a documentary and some liberties are necessary for drama. Granted, the pacing is a bit slow, and it's definitely a cerebral film, but what Fat Man and Little Boy does exceptionally well is capture the overall feel of that pivotal moment in history—including a recreation of the infamous Trinity Test on July 16, 1945.

The best-known scene depicts a young physicist named Michael Merriman (John Cusack) conducting an experiment known as "tickling the dragon's tail." Manhattan Project scientists sometimes skimped on the safeguards for the dangerous experiment—like removing the shims separating the two halves of the beryllium sphere housing the plutonium core. Cusack's character is based on a physicist named Louis Slotin, one of two men who died as a result of botched criticality experiments.

Slotin was using a screwdriver to tweak the experiment when the screwdriver slipped and the two halves of beryllium came together for a moment, producing an intense burst of hard radiation. Slotin was forced to manually separate the spheres, and Fat Man and Little Boy recreates the accident in exquisite detail, right down to marking where each man was standing at the time of the accident (so the different doses of radiation received by each could be calculated) and removing all metal from their persons. And like Slotin, Merriman dies horribly of radiation sickness within days.

A Japanese widow (Sachiko Murase) who lost her husband in the bombing of Nagasaki meets her American nephew (Richard Gere) in <em>Rhapsody in August</em>.
Enlarge / A Japanese widow (Sachiko Murase) who lost her husband in the bombing of Nagasaki meets her American nephew (Richard Gere) in Rhapsody in August.Shochiku Films Ltd.

Rhapsody in August (1991)

Director Akira Kurosawa was an undisputed master of cinema, and this was his penultimate film. Rhapsody in August is a quiet, reflective piece that tells the story of three generations of a post-war Japanese family and their different attitudes toward the US dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It centers on the family's grandmother, Kane (Sachiko Murase), who lost her husband in the Nagasaki bombing and whose advancing age has caused her to decline mentally. Four of her grandchildren come to visit her in Kyūshū, along with Kane's American-born nephew Clark (Richard Gere), and they gradually learn more about the devastating impact the bombing had on Japan.

Because it focuses primarily on the horrors unleashed by the US military action without mentioning Japan's war crimes (such as the infamous bombing of Pearl Harbor), Rhapsody was controversial when it premiered at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival. Kurosawa responded to the whitewashing allegations by denying any anti-American messaging and reiterating that his film was about people, not wars between governments. It is difficult not to be moved by the final scene, in which a disoriented Kane mistakes a severe storm for the bombing of Nagasaki and goes to save her husband, bending against the driving wind and rain with just a small umbrella.

Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) has a vivid nightmare about nuclear holocaust in a famous scene from <em>Terminator 2: Judgment Day</em>.
Enlarge / Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) has a vivid nightmare about nuclear holocaust in a famous scene from Terminator 2: Judgment Day.TriStar Pictures

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Nuclear bombs have been a common plot device in blockbuster action movies for decades, although not always believably portrayed (*cough* "nuking the fridge" *cough*). But in addition to being the best sequel ever made (fight me), Terminator 2: Judgment Day took its vision of the threat of a future nuclear apocalypse seriously—in this case, perpetrated by the rogue Skynet AI system.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the powerful scene depicting Sarah Connor's (Linda Hamilton) nuclear nightmare, where she bangs on a chain link fence in vain, trying to warn mothers playing with their children in a Los Angeles park of the disaster about to befall them. Then the bomb goes off and reduces everyone to carbonized ash, including Sarah herself. The visual effects team built a miniature Los Angeles with buildings, roads, and vehicles. After viewing real footage of nuclear tests (many of which can be viewed on the Lawrence Livermore National Lab YouTubeRead More – Source