Image Entertainment presents
The Day After Trinity (1980)
"You may well ask why persons of kind heart and human feelings would work on weapons of mass destruction."- Hans Bethe
Stars: J. Robert Oppenheimer, Frank Oppenheimer, Paul Frees
Other Stars: Francis Ferguson, Freeman Dyson, Stan Ulam, Robert Wilson, Hans Bethe
Director: Jon Else
Manufacturer: Ritek Global Media
MPAA Rating: Not RatedRun Time: 01h:28m:51s
Release Date: 2002-05-14
DVD ReviewIn these times of terror, when possible destruction can come in many guises and in many places, it's almost easy to get wistful and nostalgic for the certitude of years past, when the enemy was a known quantity, a discrete entity, be it the Axis powers during World War II or the Soviet Union for the decades of the Cold War. This 1980 documentary serves well in this context as an abject lesson in the dangers of nostalgia—though different in many respects from these days, those were terrifying times, and the unleashing of the furies of the energy of the atom opened a Pandora's box that endangers all of us, every day.
The Day After Trinity is both a look at the Manhattan Project and the development of the first atomic bomb by the U.S. during the Second World War, and a profile of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who was the director of that project. It's a tremendous amount of ground to cover, and while it would be unfair to say that either aspect is given short shrift—this is a very dense ninety minutes—this documentary is, in many respects, a useful point of departure for those interested in looking at the man and his times, not the last word on either.
Oppenheimer grew up in Manhattan and summered in New Mexico, and the film chronicles both his intellectual development—he read Marx in German, and was fond of quoting romantic poetry—and his growing awareness about his world: as a Jew, he paid keen attention to the rise of Nazism in Germany, and though the FBI monitored his actions due to his left-leaning political views, Oppie was ready and eager to heed the call of his country in wartime.
The second half of his odd couple was General Leslie Groves, the gruff career military man twinned with the Buddha-quoting atomic physicist. The two of them recruited the finest scientific minds in America, and gathered them in Los Alamos, New Mexico, to develop what was referred to as "the gadget," the first atomic weapon. (Oppenheimer was especially pleased with his first proper title in the military: Coordinator of Rapid Rupture.) The documentary interviews several participants in the Manhattan Project, including Oppie's brother, Frank; Hans Bethe, who is especially good, a man of wisdom tinged with regret; and Robert Wilson, who with his wife displays particular interest in the moral dimensions of their project.
At its height, Los Alamos, "the most expensive scientific project in the history of the world," had a population of 6,000 or so, scientists and their families, and every single one of them looked to Oppie for guidance. The participants describe a venture and a leader (i.e., Oppenheimer) so caught up in the task at hand that only after the fact did the consequences of their work come to the fore. Originally developed to keep pace with an alleged Nazi nuclear project (it turns out there was none), should the bomb-making have been shut down after victory in Europe? Should the U.S. have dropped the bomb at all, and was it in fact the only way to avoid a bloody, full-scale invasion of the Japanese mainland? And what of the Nagasaki problem—that is, was the second bomb necessary?
The pained looks on the scientists' faces indicate their moral anguish, and neither they nor anybody else has easy answers to these questions. Oppenheimer certainly didn't—as one of his colleagues quotes him here: "The physicists have known sin, and this is a knowledge they cannot lose." It's hard to imagine the connection for these men between their laboratory work, their esprit de corps in New Mexico, and the 100,000 dead in and around Hiroshima.
The last portion of the documentary is devoted to Oppie's later years, when he was eclipsed in the scientific community by Edward Teller and his fierce advocacy of the hydrogen bomb. Senator McCarthy got Oppenheimer in the crosshairs, and President Eisenhower, deeming him a security risk, subsequently revoked Oppenheimer's clearance to participate in government work at the highest level. His public service was effectively at an end, and he seems, in the footage from the time, a broken man.
It's unfortunate that no live action footage of Oppenheimer exists from before or during Los Alamos, because for the few minutes he's on the screen, he's an extraordinary presence. But his spectre looms over all the interviewees, for whom he seems to be a figure larger than life; if the filmmakers cannot quite capture the man in all his aspects, they give a pungent and memorable look at his legacy.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-
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Image Transfer Review: While the archival footage looks surprisingly good—it's especially interesting to see color movies from Los Alamos—the interviews conducted for the documentary are pretty full of scratches and nicks. Things look all right, and it's largely talking heads, but still, some improvements for DVD would have been much appreciated.
Image Transfer Grade: C
Audio Transfer Review: Though the only track is a monaural one, it's a pretty clean transfer to DVD, with little interference and respectable dynamics.
Audio Transfer Grade: B-
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Extras Review: Sixteen chapter stops are the only features of the disc, which is unfortunate, given the wealth of information and possibilities.
Extras Grade: D-
Final CommentsFor better or worse, we all live with the legacy of Oppenheimer, and this documentary is a sharp look at the man and his accomplishments from some of those who knew him best. Oppie himself remains somewhat inscrutable, but this DVD gives a refreshing immediacy to the dangers and the excitement of the first days of the nuclear age.
Jon Danziger 2002-07-09