Filmmaker Peter Kuran goes to ground zero of the nuclear age in TRINITY AND BEYOND: THE ATOMIC BOMB MOVIE, a nonfiction spectacle even more terrifying because of the dispassionate attitude towards its subject.
The film opens with a prophetic 1914 quote from H.G. Wells that foretells the advent of the 20th century's most terrifying weapons. Using military training films and government footage (much of it only recently declassified), Kuran chronicles the evolution of atomic weapons, beginning with the
Manhattan Project during WWII and its goal of creating what was described as a "uranium gun." "Trinity" (one marvels at the military's endless supply of evocative code names) triumphed on July 16, 1945 when the first fission explosion took place in secret near White Sands Missile Range in New
Mexico. Although the two American atom bombs created by the Manhattan Project and dropped on Japan ended WWII, it was only the beginning for an awesome new technology. Further US military tests--Operations Sandstone, Ivy, Bravo, and Redwing--increased the destructive capability of the warheads,
and the first successful H-bomb tests occur in the South Pacific in 1952. The stakes rise when the Soviets announce their own H- bomb the next year. In 1961, the USSR sets off a "Monster Bomb" at Novaya Zemlya. Its record-shattering yield: 570 kilotons. The Hiroshima explosion was only 12.5
kilotons. Thermonuclear tests continue, carefully monitored, under a bewildering variety of conditions; in the air, under the sea (Operation Wigwam), in space. Finally a test-ban treaty between the two superpowers in 1963 caps the chronology. But by that point, Red China has a bomb of its own.
This story has been told before, but never quite as Kuran does. The director, a Hollywood special-effects artist on everything from STAR WARS (1977) to STARSHIP TROOPERS (1997) obtained declassified Department of Defense and Atomic Energy Commission footage (not a very difficult thing, he said),
then cleaned and enhanced the obscure 16mm prints using his own computerized process. With computer-generated charts and diagrams and William Shatner's low-key narration to fill in the blanks, the images take on an awesome force, especially projected in widescreen and wedded to William T.
Stromberg's appropriately bombastic orchestral score. Mushroom cloud follows mushroom cloud, often filling the defiled Western American sky with a sinister, godlike splendor.
There are echoes of the ironic antinuke compilation THE ATOMIC CAFE (1982) in Kuran's choice of campy, old army instructional films (one starring Marilyn Monroe) to evoke yesteryear's patriotic mindset. But for the most part Kuran skips commentary and historical background details--Korea,
Indochina, the atomic spy ring, assorted moves and counter-moves of the Cold War--to present a straightforward chronology of doomsday devices. Hopefully, audiences will appreciate the novelty of not being commanded what to think. The bombs speak volumes for themselves, as nuclear might, like a
genie unleashed from its prison, grows and grows. While some may say that nuclear weapons succeeded in deterring an apocalyptic WWIII (incidentally, making possible the cooperation of the Moscow Symphony Orchestra in recording the soundtrack of this film), the final, full-color propaganda-epic
sequence, received by Kuran through a Chinese contact, is as horrific a depiction of neo-barbarism as we're going to get onscreen: Mao-era Chinese troops on horseback, wearing radiation suits and gas masks like some atavistic Mongol-warrior armor, enthusiastically set off a nuke and then ride
through the smoke and the fallout, ferociously firing their rifles from their mounts. This is the way the world ends. (Violence.)
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