|Trinity and Beyond: The Atomic Bomb Movie|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 18 January 2000|
Peter Kuran is a special effects technician, one of the best in the business, but he's also long been fascinated by nuclear bombs. This documentary on the history of America's nuclear tests, brilliantly pieced together out of many sources, is a demonstration of that fascination. Unfortunately, he takes no direct stand on the validity or morality of nuclear testing, though the frequent citing of figures does add its own kind of wry commentary. Did the U.S. really need to do 1,054 nuclear weapons tests?
Editing as well as directing, Kuran uses material from training films, other documentaries (incluing "Triumph of the Will"), military footage and other sources. Furthermore, he had access to footage not previously available to the public (though there's nothing in the movie indicating just which footage this was). He also shot some original footage of some of the test sites, including the very first, Trinity, as they look today. Stills, sometimes enhanced by special effects, are used throughout, and there are some CGI shots when footage wasn't available.
William Shatner narrates in a sober, compelling manner, while older footage is narrated by effects expert Randall William Cook in an appropriate "newsreel" voice. Kuran interviewed nuclear weapons expert Frank H. Shelton -- as well as Edward Teller himself, the "father of the hydrogen bomb," and always one of the most fervent supporters of the concept of nuclear deterrence.
Kuran's focus, however, is not on the ethics of the nuclear standoff, but on the history of America's nuclear tests. His film includes some surprising scenes, such as a ton of TNT being carefully (if unnervingly vigorously) stacked up to explode, to provide a means of describing subsequent nuclear explosions. (Kilotons of TNT, later megatons.) There's color footage of the Enola Gay being loaded with "Little Boy" and "Fat Man" -- the Hiroshima and Nagasaki A-bombs; there's even footage that seems to be the explosion over Hiroshima.
Immediately after World War II, the United States continued testing nuclear weapons, and did so regularly for the next twenty years. Though the narration (written by Scott Narrie and Don Pugsley) never emphasizes this, we see for ourselves how irresponsible and unnecessary much of this testing was. Slipped in almost casually is the point that many of the tests weren't of the bombs as weapons, but to find out how to build better bomb shelters: nuclear war seemed that inevitable. The concept of fallout seems to have been overlooked by the nuclear testers (except Oppenheimer, who's barely mentioned); the severe radiation resulting from the 1946 tests at Eniwetok and Bikini in the Pacific was unexpected.
Kuran seems to be in love with the catastrophic beauty of nuclear explosions, and includes dozens of mushroom clouds, in black and white and color, which never seem repetitious, but sometimes lose their power to stun. However, he also includes shocking, uncomfortable scenes -- still powerful after all these years -- of test buildings being first incinerated and then demolished by the flash and shock waves of the bombs. There's an astonishing scene of a tall pine tree in the distance: its needles are blown away so swiftly that for an instant, they retain the shape of the tree.
It's never made clear whether the sounds of the explosions are the real thing, or recreated, although the fact that there is a brief separate segment of a bomb explosion with "actual sound delay" suggests that, as they used to say, things have been "technically augmented." Some of these explosions will really test the parameters of your subwoofers, and if you crank the system all the way up, perhaps test the structural integrity of your house.
The score by William T. Stromberg is, appropriately enough, bombastic and florid, but perfectly suited to these apocalyptic images. You have the option of watching the film with the score alone.
The film is intelligent and sophisticated and, considering the subject matter, understated. But it's also flawed in that it really comes down to a history of explosions, not of nuclear testing itself, or what it was designed to accomplish. (Often, we aren't told the results of the tests.) He slips from "atomic" to "thermonuclear" without making the distinction clear, and skips completely over the worldwide protests against testing that increased throughout the 1950s. (He doesn't even include that famous photo of Bertrand Russell.)
A moral stance was probably not necessary, but the fact that other people did take such a stance, and that these protests were instrumental in ending the U.S. nuclear tests, should have been mentioned. As it is, the engrossing "Trinity and Beyond" is slightly hollow at the heart: the beauty and destructive power of the nuclear tests is obvious. Why they were irresponsible is not.