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Film review: Fat Man and Little Boy

Published: Saturday, Nov. 11 1989 12:00 a.m. MST

One problem with "Fat Man and Little Boy" is that it's redundant. The same story was told in the TV-movie "Day One" earlier this year and J. Robert Oppenheimer was the subject of a PBS special a couple of years ago.

That wouldn't matter, of course, if "Fat Man and Little Boy" were a knockout movie, and the audience has every right to expect that, given the star power (Paul Newman), co-writer/director (Roland Joffe, "The Killing Fields"), cinematographer (Vilmos Zsigmond, "Close Encounters"), etc., attached to the project.

But "Fat Man and Little Boy" falls short somewhere, a distanced examination of the two years scientists spent holed up in Los Alamos, N.M., creating the world's first atomic bombs. In the end, that's the problem. It's just too distanced to allow us to get involved. ("Fat Man" was the bomb dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945; "Little Boy" was the bomb dropped on Nagasaki three days later.)

Newman is Gen. Leslie Groves, the man chosen to pick the scientist to head up the $2 billion Manhattan Project — and he, of course, picks Oppenheimer (Dwight Schultz). Oppenheimer in turn chooses the most brilliant physicists available to crack the problems inherent to creating the bomb.

Among those physicists is John Cusack, who keeps a diary for his father, who nominally narrates the film and who ultimately becomes the martyr for the cause. (Cusack's ultimate fate is paralleled with the countdown to the first practical test of the bomb as the mid-1945 deadline nears, a dramatic device that seems rather contrived.)

Joffe directs his story as sort of organized chaos, both the events that surround the scientists and the life they are forced to lead for two years — and even in the shape of the film. There are few pauses or lingering moments, everything is rapid-fire action, short spurts of dialogue and quick editing cuts, which gives the film an edgy and nervous feel when it should be building tension.

The result is plenty of nervous energy, but an odd dramatic lethargy, despite the efforts of the excellent cast, the glossy technical aspects and Ennio Morricone's excellent music.

And for some reason the film avoids its most obvious dramatic element — after the scientists who have helped create the bomb become conscience-stricken about the possibility of it actually being used, the movie stops short of allowing us to see the debate that ultimately led to its being dropped on Japan.

Though Newman gets top billing and has a number of showy scenes that allow him to flex his dramatic muscles as the grousing, growly-voiced general in charge of the project, his character is by necessity an outside observer. But because the film tries to make him a central character the focus becomes lopsided and uncomfortable. Still it's a wonderful star turn and quite a bit different than the Paul Newman image we're accustomed to.

Schultz is also good, seeming to have taken the world upon his shoulders and wondering in the end if he's made the right decision. But he is by design a stiff, unemotional character, and that becomes a debit. Cusack is more or less the same endearing, charming fellow he always plays — but that's no complaint.

The fine actresses chosen to play the women in the film are all extremely underused, and that may explain why each gets a dramatic — or melodramatic — moment: Bonnie Bedelia, playing Oppenheimer's wife, has the most thankless role, but Natasha Richardson, as Oppenheimer's mistress, shines in her two brief scenes, leaving an impression that lingers throughout the rest of the film. Laura Dern is also effective as the nurse in love with Cusack, a sappy role that she invests with a great deal of dignity.

On balance, "Fat Man and Little Boy" is a major disappointment.

It is rated PG-13 for some accidental violence, a few profanities and the aforementioned sex scene with Schultz and Richardson.

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