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The Forgotten: We’re All Sons of Bitches Now

The political and scientific deliberations leading to the bombing of Hiroshima are explored in Joseph Sargent’s smart TV drama.
There must be thousands of old TV movies that would reward viewing if they were being screened anywhere... although the odds of finding anything good at random are even more slight than when you go trawling through old cinema releases without a guide. The much-discredited auteur theory can come to the rescue: a show with a director known for other interesting work has a far higher chance of rewarding attention.
TV was Joseph Sargent's bread and butter, from relatively highbrow stuff to The Man from Uncle, but he also made several decent cinema films, including at least one masterpiece, The Taking of Pelham 123. When I found a DVD entitled Hiroshima with his name spelled incorrectly on the back, I decided to take a chance on it, and indeed the film, originally it seems a mini-series from 1989 called Day One, has a lot going for it.
What immediately cheered me, besides reliable names like Brian Dennehy and David Strathairn in the credits, was some instances of Sargent's Langian technique of linking scenes together by word, gesture, action, which he earlier displayed in Pelham and in Colossus: The Forbin Project. Early on, an emigre physicist steps out of a London police station and asks a cop for directions. The cop points—and we cut to an American university, seconds before the same physicist trudges wearily into shot. Kuleshov's geographical trickery used to tie together scenes set weeks and many miles apart, using the edit to create a conceptual connection.
Later, David Ogden Stiers as FDR (very welcome but all too brief) suggests passing a document to committee, and hands it offscreen—and we cut to the document being literally passed to the committee, as if the president's arm reached down the corridor, out the door and across D.C. to another building and handed it there. Lovely.
It's lovely stuff, though I wish there were more like it. The acting is all very solid, and the version of history told—though it could perhaps have made the physics clearer—is equally well-founded. At school in the eighties, I was told as fact that Truman dropped the bomb as the only alternative to a costly invasion, which makes for a compelling moral dilemma, but simply isn't true. If the TV version seems slanted against Truman and in favor of the scientists from the Manhattan Project who argued against actually using the bomb, it's simply because it allows all the characters to present their cases as they really did, and the case for wiping out a city was startlingly weak: it had far more to do with establishing an advantageous position for the US in a Cold War that didn't need to happen.
Latterly, the overuse of stock footage—those mushroom clouds have really lost a lot of their power to chill, which is worrying in itself—is unfortunate, and the script devolves into speech-making a little too much. But it's all good people doing the speeches: Hume Cronyn and Richard Dysart really commit to their creepy roles, whereas Dennehy plays General Groves as the hero in his own movie, which is exactly the way the man must have seen himself.
And Oppenheimer is, forever, an enigma. Neither the nervy David Strathairn nor the screenplay make a definitive choice about what makes him tick, so we get his sometimes shifty or contradictory actions as the record presents them, and have to draw our own conclusions.
Day One/Hiroshima isn't quite first rate stuff, but it's intelligent and serious and I wonder how much more material like it is lurking out there, and if producer Aaron Spelling made any of it, because that cheesemaker's name is the one that pops out most surprisingly here.
***
The Forgotten is a regular fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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