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Fat Man and Little Boy
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by Jack Sommersby

"A Bomb, Unfortunately"
2 stars

Quite the box-office flop given its considerable budget and paltry take-in.

Boasting a stupendous production design by Gregg Fonseca, evocative cinematography by the best-in-the-business Vilmos Zsigmond, and luxurious location shooting in Mexico, the big-budget docudrama Fat Man and Little Boy is an exceedingly good-looking production in that it convincingly transports the audience to a specific time and place. It starts out in the year 1942, nine months after Pearl Harbor, and centers on the legendary engineer General Leslie Groves who was responsible for constructing the massive Pentagon building who, in the middle of World War II, rather than being assigned to lead men in combat as is his feverish desire is ordered to head a top-secret Army operation to develop an atomic bomb before the Germans develop one of their own. We forward a year later to Los Alamos, New Mexico, where an intricate research facility has been constructed where the best scientific minds in the world are culled together to make the ultimate weapon comprised of unstable U-235 grade-A plutonium. And recruited to supervise this is the genius of a Berkeley nuclear theorist J. Robert Oppenheimer despite his associations with what are perceived as communist sympathies, with a mere nineteen-months deadline to produce the bomb with an initial budget of just one-billion but steadily escalates to closer to two-billion with all the unforeseen set-backs, with Groves continually worried how he'll explain a failure to a Senate inquiry. Paul Newman plays the martinet Groves and Dwight Schultz the eccentric Oppenheimer, and while their early scenes show some promise the movie is too heavy-handed in nailing these characters down and deprives us of the potential comical interplay between these diametric opposites - everything we get is strictly on the surface, and time and time again we wish for their scenes together to have more definition and finesse, not to mention unpredictability and flourish. This is maybe the first time I've seen Newman not enjoying himself on the screen, going through the motions without much in the way of inspiration; and Schultz, who could've used some of the outlandishness he displayed as the Vietnam veteran "Howling Mad" Murdoch in the enjoyable TV-series "The A-Team," is disappointingly mannered and studied - both of them seem to be sublimating their alert reserve and instincts to fuse with a "realism" that just doesn't get the movie much anywhere when a more colorful contrast between the two would've given the proceedings some real life. The director, Roland Joffe, who gave us the overrated The Killing Fields and justly-criticized The Mission, co-wrote the screenplay with Fields scribe Bruce Robinson (they're both Brits), and he lets the potential of the material slip right through his fingers. Working in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio Joffe gives us several outstanding widescreen compositions, but as in his other efforts he's incapable of establishing a viable through-line that would fluidly segue from one scene to another, chiefly due to his inability at locating and emphasizing the dramatic impetus when it's most needed. Fat Man and Little Boy, despite the story's race-to-build-the-bomb timetable, has absolutely no immediacy, and by the one-hour mark becomes awfully episodic and eventually downright enervating. The movie is wildly overstuffed with superfluous subplots involving Oppenheimer's socialist card-carrying mistress he flies to San Francisco to see, a meeting of conscience-laden scientists objecting to the project being used as a weapon after the war has officially ended, and a romantic interlude with a military nurse and an ace Chicago physicist (John Cusack, who delivers the best performance). Oh, there's the occasional bit of biting dialogue to be had, as when Oppenheimer barks at Groves, "Quit playing God - you're not good at it, and the position is taken," and there's an appropriately harrowing sequence where someone is accidentally exposed to an ultra-lethal dose of radiation, but by and large Fat Man and Little Boy (the title refers to the nicknames of the U.S. bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) is pretty much ado about nothing. Unfocused and meandering, it's direly devoid of the power to truly detonate and make anything of a lasting impression.

Better off reading the particulars in a non-fiction book.

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originally posted: 12/01/20 13:12:49
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  02-Jul-1989 (PG-13)



Directed by
  Roland Joffé

Written by
  Bruce Robinson
  Roland Joffé

  Paul Newman
  Dwight Schultz
  John Cusack
  Laura Dern
  Bonnie Bedelia

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