We gave it a C-
At Los Alamos in 1945, the finest scientific minds in the West were scared out of their considerable wits. To lighten up the tense weeks before the test detonation of their atom bomb, they passed around this poem: ”Their necks to Truman’s ax uncurled/Lo, the embattled savants stood/ And fired the flop heard round the world.”
The early A-bombs, dubbed Fat Man and Little Boy, weren’t duds. But Roland Joffe’s film about its creation most certainly is — movie houses were quite right to give it the ax after a brief release.
Joffe recruited some of the top talents in the field — Paul Newman (as the Los Alamos military commander General Leslie Groves), John Cusack, Laura Dern, Natasha Richardson, and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. But Joffe lacks the gift of the bomb project’s scientific chief, J. Robert Oppenheimer: the ability to organize and focus a number of people on a single, vital task.
There is scarcely a performance in Fat Man and Little Boy that is less than commendable. Almost every scene is thoughtfully and tastefully (though not imaginatively) devised. But the characters and shots do not work together to tell a story.
Instead, we get a bunch of inconclusive vignettes: Oppenheimer (Dwight Schultz) telling General Groves how to motivate the scientists; Groves confronting Oppy about the latter’s off-base adultery with a card-carrying Communist (Richardson); the romance of a nurse (Dern) and a young nuclear hotshot (Cusack); physicists grousing about technical snafus in preliminary tests. Following these, the mushroom cloud comes off as just another disconnected event.
Joffe’s reputation rests largely on The Killing Fields, in which his scattershot method effectively evoked the chaos of Cambodia’s holocaust. With Fat Man, Joffe’s storytelling becomes so loose it almost unravels. If you want to find out about Los Alamos, try renting the documentary The Day After Trinity: J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb.